Educators: The unsung heroes supporting immigrant families in wake of ICE raids

Educators: The unsung heroes supporting immigrant families in wake of ICE raids
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Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted raids at seven agricultural processing plants throughout Mississippi last Wednesday, resulting in 680 detainments. These coordinated enforcement actions were the largest single-state operation in our country’s history. Notably, Wednesday was also the first day of the new school year for students throughout the Jackson area in which the raids occurred.

We are community health researchers who, guided by affected communities, study the impacts of immigration raids. We have visited the sites of four major immigration work raids that occurred in 2018: Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, Bean Station, Tenn., Sumner, Texas, and O’Neill, Neb. At each location, we have spoken to detainees and their families, as well as advocates, lawyers, faith leaders and teachers.

We have analyzed data from community surveys and vital records to understand how immigration raids inflict fear and trauma, destabilize families, affect the growth of children in utero and create widespread distrust of government services of all kinds. In the aftermath of these raids, people are left fearing future arrests, scrambling to locate loved ones who have disappeared and seeking new means of survival in the absence of financial providers who have been detained and deported.

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And after these raids, children often do not show up to school. To give one example, in August of 2018, ICE collaborated with the Tennessee Highway Patrol and other federal agencies to raid a meat-packing plant in Bean Station, Tennessee. The next day, 500 kids were absent. In one interview in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, we spoke with Sharon, a fourth-grade teacher. Sharon described to us what her room looked like after the raid. As her third graders engaged in circle time, just like they did every morning, she shared: “Some said ‘My dad got taken. I don’t know if we have to move.’ Others didn’t say anything at all. A middle school teacher, Troy, shared with us, "So when I got to school I kind of tried to observe and just see if my Hispanic kids were there, and they weren't. I think we had over 100 missing."

Because work raids tend to happen during the work day, parents are often taken while children are at school. Thus, as we’ve seen in our work, it’s often teachers, counselors, principals and superintendents who scramble to care for children whose parents may have just disappeared. In interviews, teachers described developing ad hoc meal delivery systems to keep children fed when parents no longer leave the house to buy groceries.

Consistently, educators have debated how to tell their students that some of them wouldn’t be picked up by their parents that day. Emerging reports already point to a similar role played by educators in Mississippi, with bus drivers being instructed not to drop off children at the empty houses of their detained parents.

As the Trump administration increasingly relies on immigration work raids, it’s critical that we reflect not only on the separation of children and their parents, but also on the predictable role that educators in immigrant communities will be forced to play. It is these educators, by virtue of being in contact with children when these raids occur, who will have to tell their students that the parents who dropped them off may not be the people who pick the up. It is principals and superintendents who will have to put protocols in place so that children do not leave the school bus to go into empty houses. And it is teachers and counselors who will  guide students through the psychological and emotional tumult of parental removal.

Of course, it is unreasonable to expect anyone to be able to respond to such community-wide disaster as an immigration raid. As Troy, mentioned above, shared, “The teachers seemed helpless, you know. Normally teachers can figure anything out...But we all seemed very helpless."

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Many teachers themselves referred to the trauma that came with watching their students go quiet in the days that follow or observing as families in their community disappeared. Often, the support educators provided occurred simultaneously with their own processing of the traumatic event, as well as reflecting on the limits of their roles as teachers. As Jessica shared, “It's hard to know what your place is when that happens. You know? Where do you stop being a teacher?”

In communities that are recent immigrant destinations, schools, and the educators who run them, can be some of the strongest, most trusted points of connection between immigrant families and the broader community. Educators have been unsung and invisible heroes standing with and supporting immigrant families in the wake of raids.

William Lopez is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and author of the book Separated: Family and Community in the Aftermath of an Immigration Raid.” Nicole Novak is an assistant research scientist at the University of Iowa College of Public Health.