Immigrant families turning to trusted educators as fears rise

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By Sabrina Holcomb

Parents from two different families have asked Rachel Sandoval if she’ll be the guardian for their children if they’re seized in an immigration raid. For Sandoval, this is what it means to be a second grade teacher in 2017.

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“I shouldn’t have to talk to seven year olds about what will happen to them if their parents are deported,” declares the Colorado teacher.” “I should be able to focus on lesson plans.”

Amidst widespread fears driven by escalating immigration raids and expanded deportation policies, some frightened families are turning to educators they trust as their first line of defense, while others are withdrawing from the school community.

Sandoval reports that parents are changing their phone numbers and discouraging educators from coming to the house as part of the school’s home visit program. “On the ‘Day without Immigrants’ protests, over half of our student population was missing,” Sandoval shares. “Only 50 of the 300 kids who attend school down the street showed up.”

Rachel Sandoval

The state of Colorado has a higher than average percentage of undocumented immigrants according to a Pew study. Approximately 130,000 live in the Denver metro area where Sandoval works.

These demographics put some Colorado educators on the front lines of the immigration rights battle, with educators from every corner of the state calling for guidance reports Colorado Education Association Vice President Amie Baca-Oehlert.

To support their members and students, CEA is partnering with the Colorado People’s Alliance and parent and student advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos to offer statewide “Educators United for Immigrant Rights” trainings, which prepare educators to organize “know your rights” clinics in their local school districts.

Email us at neaEdJustice [at] nea.org to get a Supporting Immigrant Youth and Families presentation template to help you hold your own training.

“One of our kindergarten teachers had a little boy who brought a suitcase with him to class for two days,” shares Baca-Oehlert. “When she asked him what it was for, he said ‘I want to make sure I have my special things when they come to get me’. His teacher asked us how she should talk to him and all of his classmates who kept asking where he was going.”

In addition to navigating situations like these, CEA’s trainings help educators like Rachel Sandoval coordinate local “know your rights” clinics for the educators and undocumented families in their own school communities.

These clinics—staffed by educators, community organizers, attorneys, and churches—have become lifelines for undocumented families.

“Knowing your rights means teaching people that even though you’re undocumented, the U.S. constitution protects you, and that’s brand new information for our families,” Sandoval clarifies. “We also teach educators what avenues they can pursue legally to protect their students.”

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In addition to planning her school’s first clinic, Sandoval has persuaded her church to offer sanctuary to immigrants seeking protection from deportation. She’s also helping plan a Day of Action on March 1 to “fight the fear” and lobby legislators around bills that have an outsized impact on Denver’s undocumented community.

Sandoval says she she’s reassured by the steps Denver has already taken to protect undocumented students, including passing a schoolboard resolution designating the district a safe zone and another resolution directing staff to withhold student information from federal officials unless required by law.

Colorado Education Association members attend an immigration rally

Despite the current crisis, Sandoval says she always tries to be positive for her students, assuring them she’s ready to do anything and everything to keep them and their families’ safe, including filing legal guardian paperwork if it comes to that.” She says her childhood experience is the reason she’s willing to go the distance.

“I grew up as the daughter of a hard-working immigrant field worker who is now a U.S. citizen. Imagine as a child seeing la migra come into the fields and grown adults running and hiding and screaming as you stand there and wonder what’s going on.”

“Seeing families ripped apart is forever seared into my brain,” confides Sandoval. “I can’t let that happen to my own students. If I have to chain myself to that border wall, I’ll do that. There are days I’m exhausted but I have the luxury to be exhausted and not everyone has that. Those who believe in freedom cannot rest.”

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