Undocumented Immigrants

When a Student Says, 'The President Is Going to Take My Parents Away'

In my fourth-grade classroom in Houston, Texas, the morning after Election Day 2016 was quiet. As students filed into the classroom, I asked them to make a circle on the rug to talk through the question, “How are you feeling today?” My most charismatic, happy-go-lucky student broke into tears.

“The president is going to take my parents away, Miss! What am I going to do?”

My stomach tensed in the face of the question I’d been dreading. 

Other students chimed in with similar fears and concerns for themselves and their families. My students, 9- and 10-year-old children, should not be concerned with being separated from their caregivers. They should have a caring and supportive environment in which they can focus on their learning. But that’s not the reality they’re currently allowed.

On the contrary, children from immigrant families, including approximately 4.1 million U.S. citizen children living with an undocumented parent, are now immersed in a web of toxic stress. They are surrounded by news of children like them in cages, separated from their parents. They hear repeated threats of mass deportation raids. And they know that ICE agents have increasingly targeted immigrants moving to and from schools, hospitals and churches.

This culture of fear clearly affects schools. Just yesterday in Forest, Mississippi, ICE agents arrested nearly 700 immigrant workers in one of the largest single immigration sweeps in history. These raids left children stranded, without parents—devastated and begging the government to have a heart. How can children focus on learning objectives when they’re preoccupied with the reality that their parent may be gone when they get home? How can children learn when they're not coming to summer programs because their communities are scared into hiding? How does a child engage with academic material when their surroundings scream “Build the Wall”?

Immigration Policy That Hurts All Students

Last year, the UCLA Civil Rights Project published a first-of-its-kind study on the impact of current immigration enforcement on schools. According to the report, 70% of educators surveyed noted a decline in academic performance among their immigrant students, which they attributed to concerns about immigration issues.

Educators also reported that non-immigrant students’ learning was being affected due to concerns for their peers whose families were at risk. This was especially true in southern cities, which educators reported were “hardest hit” by concerns about immigration policy and enforcement.

Student absenteeism due to fear of potential ICE raids was reported as a problem by 68% of administrators across all regions. Given that schools lose funding when students are absent, this problem does not only affect student learning, but also school finances and operations. 

Twenty-six percent of children under the age of 18 in U.S. schools have an immigrant parent. When we tell one in four children that they and their families don’t belong, and actively destroy their safety networks and well-being, we are damaging our society’s whole fabric. Can our country’s conscience rest easy knowing the dire circumstances we’re creating for children, including children we’ve formally accepted and children who’ve only ever known the United States as their home?

Tell Them They Are Not Alone

I return to my student’s question often. “What am I going to do?” Children have to know that they’re not expected to answer that question and that they’re not alone in their concern. In class the morning after the 2016 election, we discussed “the people that care about you and will help you or your family, no matter what.” Our discussion included examples of communities fighting deportations, and those efforts have only grown stronger.

Within our schools and classrooms, we also must change how we talk about immigrants, and respect the values and strengths they bring to our schools and communities. 

To show that our education system actually cares about the educational outcomes and the future of all our students, educators have to let students know that we stand for them and with them, and that we will use the leverage afforded us by our positions, however small, to respond to this crisis. There can be no ambiguity about our support for them and our insistence that public debates respect their dignity.

Take Action

Everyone has a role to play in ensuring humane immigration policy centers healthy communities, and the communities affected by the raids in Mississippi need support right now. You can help, regardless of where you are.

If you are looking for resources on how to support students in the classroom and establish a safe space for immigrants, please go to ImmSchools and check out the resources tab.

Rosario Quiroz Villarreal
Rosario Quiroz Villarreal is a policy entrepreneur at the Next100, a startup think-tank for progressive policy. She is committed to increasing educational equity for immigrant students and students of color. Growing up as an undocumented immigrant, Rosario understood that the sacrifices her parents made in moving to a new country were centered around securing better opportunities for the future, ...

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