When 'safe and welcoming' is no longer enough
"Mr. Reed my dad was detained by ICE."
My jaw dropped, and I let out a pained gasp while in the middle of instruction during a recent 10th-grade American Studies class. Helen, always quick to notice when something is amiss, asked aloud, "Mr. Reed, is everything alright? Did you get a message or alert about something bad?"
"No, everything is not alright. A student some of us know is in trouble. But I'm sorry, I cannot share more about it right now." I looked down to hide my quickly welling eyes and mask the fearful tone in my voice while asking my students to return to their assignment.
I texted Angelo back and asked where he was, and if he was safe. He responded, "Yeah, I'm with a family member right now, but haven't told my mom or siblings yet. We don't know what we should do."
Students like Angelo or teachers like me should not feel so helpless in a school district that just a year prior declared itself safe and welcoming for immigrant students and families.
Right now the hundreds of immigrant students and their families face escalating threats of detention and deportation by federal government increasingly hostile toward immigrants. Last year educators, students, and families knew this immigration crackdown would come. This is why my school district, like dozens others across the country, passed resolutions declaring immigrant students and their families "safe" and "welcome."
However, it is clear that this promise is empty to students who need it most.
Angelo seemed more distracted than usual for weeks before his father's arrest. I would later learn that his father received a terse letter from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, informing him that his visa application was inexplicably denied, despite years without issue. As a result, instead of gathering evidence for his historical research project, Angelo used class time to make sense of his immigration options from ICE's website. Rather than synthesize evidence, Angelo scoured Craigslist for jobs he might be able to do as a 16-year-old to replace the income his father normally brought home.
Angelo felt isolated and alone, and did not know who he could turn to for help. What he needed in that moment were accessible and visible resources like the brightly labeled emergency binders found in each classroom for rare earthquakes and fires. He needed support from trained educators and staff with clear procedures for helping students and families navigate stress and trauma.
Angelo eventually told a small handful of educators, including me, who met with him multiple times to offer help. Between whispers and behind closed doors, we wrote letters to judges lamenting the harm deportation could bring to his family. We compiled lists of immigration lawyers from Latino Network and UNITE Oregon, and downloaded easy-to-access "know your rights" information from the ACLU. We fought back tears while role playing who Angelo would call first, second and third in the instance his father did not return home from work.
The toll of this stress on us was staggering. I slept poorly most nights. I spent the weekends texting Angelo morning, afternoon and night with notes of support and responding to his various questions. Instead of planning my next lesson or grading during weeknights, I reached out to friends and immigration activists searching for solutions.
And I struggled knowing that whatever I felt paled in comparison with the immense emotional and mental toll that Angelo endured. I cannot imagine seriously debating whether moving to another state to go into hiding to protect your mother and siblings is your next best option for safety. I do not know what it must have felt like to have to tell a lawyer to tell your parent that you love them during their once-a-day phone call or the growl of your stomach in the morning because you skipped breakfast in order to save money for legal fees. All this while still attending class each day, having to pretend that your tests and assignments are your most important priority.
If school districts like Beaverton are committed to supporting immigrant students and their families, bolder initiatives are needed. Students like Angelo and his family deserve more than a couple of educators who they can whisper with behind closed doors. Our schools should become the sanctuaries for students learning, equity and inclusion that we extol them to be.
How many more students and families like Angelo's will need to suffer in the meanwhile?
(Note: All student names have been changed to protect their identity.)
Matt Reed is a social studies teacher at Westview High School. He lives in Portland.