Educators step up their defense of students as immigration raids escalate


by Kate Snyder; image, children from Nashville’s immigrant community protest ICE raids. Credit: Nashville Community Defense Now

Immigrant students and their families are confronting a variety of challenges as raids across the country by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement not only escalate but place a greater focus on non-criminals. To help educators develop strategies to advocate for these students, the Tennessee Education Association recently hosted a racial justice training. NEA Edjustice had the opportunity to talk to Genny Petschulat, a training participant and kindergarten teacher in the Metro-Nashville area, about the current climate for immigrants, the role of educators as advocates, and how trainings help support the resistance efforts.

EdJustice: Since January ICE raids have increased nationwide. Nashville was in the news recently for a related reason. Can you tell us about the situation?

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Genny: In Nashville a climate of fear has taken hold in many of our communities. We are home of the nation’s largest Kurdish population, as well as sizable numbers from other countries such as Somalia, Sudan, Egypt, Eretria, Bhutan, Iraq, Mexico, Honduras and dozens and dozens of other countries. Most recently, Nashville made news because ICE agents have aggressively questioned and detained members of our Kurdish community, in some cases without properly identifying themselves as ICE agents. This has created a lot of confusion and undermined the trust everyone has worked to build in the community.

EdJustice: This sounds like it has been difficult. How have educators responded?

Genny: Can you imagine being five years old, getting dropped off at school and being afraid that you would come home to an empty house, with no idea where your parents are or if they’re coming back?

                  Genny Petschulat

As educators, we’re motivated by these heartbreaking fears of students, and we are deeply involved in helping their families and communities. We work to educate immigrant families about their rights and to put protections in place in schools and the communities.

The Metropolitan Nashville Education Association (MNEA) Is working with our school board to adopt the School Safe Zone Resolution, and we are a founder and anchor partner of Nashville Community Defense Now, an umbrella organization that formed after the election to figure out the best ways to support and advocate for immigrant communities.

MNEA also has an educators’ committee that provides Know Your Rights trainings and other outreach for families, such as assistance for caregivers of U.S. citizen children whose parents have been deported. We are not legal experts, but as teachers we try to help bridge the knowledge gap. This creates opportunities for families to build trust with advocates.

EdJustice: Given the circumstances, it seems the training you attended was timely. Can you share your thoughts on your training experience?

Genny: The training was really good for getting educators to face tough questions about race, immigration status and privilege. Those can be difficult conversations for people to have, but we can’t address our problems unless we talk about them.

EdJustice: What did you take away from the training?

Genny: This training opens a dialogue within the profession, and it helps us to connect with others who are advocating for their students and want to address problems of racial inequity. It helps us feel less afraid and more supported and comfortable with being leaders in the social justice fight. This is how we build our community.

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