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December 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 4

Working with Immigrant Families in Times of Crisis

Educators can help immigrant students and parents feel known, welcome, and empowered in schools.

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In my last four years of teaching, I committed to doing home visits for my pre-kindergarten students. I taught in a Title 1 school where the majority of students came from immigrant families. Many of them were undocumented. As an immigrant myself, I wanted to create a safe learning environment for all of my students and build genuine relationships with their parents, just like my former ESL teacher did when I came to the United States as an undocumented student in 1992.
These visits provided insight into the individual needs of my students and helped me establish a strong bond with them and their parents. I learned about their personal stories, sacrifices, and dreams. It helped me build a learning community that extended outside of the school. So, when a crisis hit, I felt that I had established enough of a relationship to help.
One of my students at the time was a four-year-old boy I'll call Santiago. Santiago was a child full of life, with a beautiful smile and breathtaking eyes. He was an only child, excited to learn about the life cycle of a butterfly, singing and learning his letters, numbers, and colors. I still remember the day I called Santiago's mom to ask why her son had not attended school for almost a week. Santiago's mom and I had established a close relationship since my first home visit, and we had good communication. When I called her, her voice was shaky and nervous. I knew something was wrong, and after a few minutes, she started sobbing and shared that her husband had been detained while driving and was going to be deported. She said that she couldn't take Santiago to school or go to work because they didn't have transportation. She said she knew where the car was, but didn't have an extra set of keys to pick it up.
My heart ached as I listened. I didn't know what to say. I wanted to help her and make sure Santiago was at school learning and playing with his classmates. I asked her if she could go to the police station to get the car keys from her husband. She paused for a minute, then said, "Maestra, I don't have papers either. I don't want to be deported."
We got off the phone and I called my immigration lawyer, who was assisting me at the time with my process to receive my green card. I asked him what I could do to help Santiago and his mother. He said that I could pick-up the keys for Santiago's mother as long as she called her husband and had him authorize me to do so. Within a day, I went to the jail, showed my ID, and got the keys.
Santiago did return to school. However, his behavior changed. He was sad, didn't want to speak, and cried all the time. Knowing what he had gone through, I was able to connect him with the school counselor and give him extra attention. Santiago needed to be with his classmates, learning and being a child. In times of crisis, people need to know that they are not alone.

A Teacher's Role

I often reflect on this experience because it shows that everyone can help and advocate for their communities in their own capacities. We all play a role in our society. At that time, I was teaching preK in a school district in Austin, Texas. Years later, I became the vice president of the local teachers union, Education Austin, and I was able to implement know-your-rights training for our union members, and I worked in collaboration with the school district to train parent support specialists and educators in how to do home visits and platicas (talks) with parents and families.
As educators, we must be equipped with a variety of tools to best serve the diverse needs of our students and their families. Many times, teachers want to help their students but don't know how to because they can't relate to what the families are experiencing, or they are afraid to be seen as "political." And yet the majority of educators are looking for better ways to serve students, and we cannot turn a blind eye to the social, emotional, and mental health needs of our children. We know that these things, if unaddressed, have a direct impact on our students' academic success. We can't teach our students to read, write, and do math if they can't concentrate because their parents are in jail. Establishing a positive and trusting relationship with families is a foundation. Providing know-your-rights information and immigration resources is the same as providing or finding resources for a student who is having difficulty reading, or helping a student who is being bullied, or connecting a struggling family with a food pantry.

Creating a Welcoming Environment

The first thing that educators must do to establish constructive relationships with immigrant students and their families is create a safe and welcoming learning environment. One way to do this is to decorate classrooms with bilingual posters and multicultural signs that welcome immigrants. Teachers unions such as AFT and NEA have "Welcome DREAMER" posters on their websites that you can download and display. Educators must also be thoughtful in incorporating culturally relevant books that depict students from different backgrounds and ethnicities. Teachers can also foster meaningful, age-appropriate discussions about immigration to make it clear that all children are welcomed as their full selves. They can bring different speakers and immigrant rights organizations to the school, host cultural nights, include thematic units about immigration, and conduct schoolwide projects that emphasize the diversity of the students and families.
Creating a culture at your school of making home visits helps teachers to establish a trusting relationship with students and their families. Investing time and getting to know the families they will work with allows teachers to connect with caregivers and know more about their lives and interests.
The next step is to intentionally involve families and make them feel welcome at school, regardless of their country of origin or immigration status. Not only is it our moral obligation as educators to address the needs of all our students, but it is the law: The U.S. Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe affirmed the right of undocumented students to a K–12 education regardless of a child's or parent's immigration status.
One way to get to know families is to invite them to a platica, or talk, to introduce them to one another, share cultures and foods, and give them information about safety, laws, and what to do in an emergency. These talks can be teacher-led or schoolwide. It is important that these meetings are bilingual or have translation services to ensure that families are receiving the information in their native language. These platicas can be publicized through flyers, newsletters, and displaying the meeting information in the school marquee or on the school's social media accounts. Again, it is important that the information is bilingual. This can establish trust and a welcoming environment. Schools can also partner with immigrant rights organizations in the community, as many of them are already organizing and providing legal assistance and services.
Platicas let families know that they are not alone, especially in moments of uncertainty like detention, deportation, or increased immigration enforcement. Community forums are a great vehicle to share resources and information about what to do in the case of an immigration raid, a family member getting arrested or deported, and how to exercise their rights as immigrants. Invite community partners to the forum such as immigrant rights organizations, consulates, and pro-bono lawyers; they can help with follow-up meetings and share practical resources.

Emergency Planning for Immigrant Families

Ideally, school administrators should create a committee to educate the faculty about how to assist immigrant families (within legal parameters). The committee can consist of counselors, teachers, parent support specialists or parent liaisons, and social workers. Such a committee can be responsible for compiling and distributing resources to share with the parents for either schoolwide platicas or one-to-one meetings. In today's climate, these resources can include a list of immigration organizations, pro-bono immigration lawyers, and consulates, as well as cards or brochures that inform immigrants of their legal rights.
During these meetings, educators can also share with parents that being prepared for immigration issues and having a family emergency plan is imperative to the well-being of their family. This is very much the school's business: Many students come from mixed-status families and need to know what they should do if a parent or primary caretaker is detained. You can encourage parents to create an emergency plan packet with the most up-to-date information about their children and each family member in their household. This packet should include copies of birth certificates, social security cards, doctor and school contacts, food allergies, medical history, and an emergency contact in their country of origin. Remind parents not to carry false documents, as that can be a felony.
To make the process more proactive and to highlight the importance of the emergency plan packet, provide families with a folder or envelope to keep the following items:
  • Extra set of car and house keys.
  • Information about their car model, license plate number, insurance, and other details.
  • Financial records, bank statements, savings accounts, and credit cards. Also, if possible, some cash for legal fees and bonds.
  • Copies of birth certificates, medical information, identification, passport, and work permits for the entire family.
Remind parents to make sure to keep all these documents in a safe place and to share this information with a family member or trusted friend who will be willing and able to help if an emergency happens. They can also place a note in their child's backpack with information such as food allergies, medicine prescriptions, and the emergency contact information of a family member or close friend.
Parents should also be advised to keep updated information with school administration about who can pick up their children or act as a legal guardian in case parents are detained. Ask them to consider establishing a power of attorney for a designated caregiver. This is important because in some school districts, administrators are required to call child protective services if no one picks up a child after school. Many foreign consulates around the country provide legal assistance and can establish communication with a family's relatives if they are detained. If the worst-case scenario does happen and a student's parent or parents is detained, teachers can write letters of support for the families, organize and support deportation defense campaigns, connect families with immigration organizations or pro-bono immigration lawyers, or contact their local authorities to try to stop the deportation of families.
Educators might also encourage parents to have honest conversations with their children. Some may think that children are too young to understand immigration issues, but they are not: Having those important family conversations and sharing emergency plans allows children to feel confident and know they will not be alone in case of an emergency.
With younger children, parents can be encouraged to role-play different situations, such as a potential home raid or how to defend their rights if ICE pulls over their family. With older children, parents should be reminded to talk about how to prepare for different scenarios and who to contact. Invite parents to check out related books from their public library, or have bilingual books available in your classroom to help parents start these important conversations. Some good books on this topic are Coyote Rabbit by Duncan Tonatihuh, Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago, and My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero. (You can find a full list of books that address family separation and immigration at Colorín Colorado, a website for ELL educators.)

Caring Communities

Organizing these types of trainings for families can be overwhelming and time-consuming; however, they can truly change the lives of our immigrant communities and help our students feel empowered and less anxious. Educators are agents of change, and we must do everything in our power to ensure that all of our students excel academically. We may not be able to shield our students from experiencing family separation as a result of immigration enforcement, but we can make sure that our families are well-informed about their rights.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ What role do you think teachers should have in helping immigrant students and their families?

➛ Garibay mentions several things that educators could do to make their immigrant students feel welcome in the classroom. Can you think of other ways to do this?

➛ What organizations in your community could you partner with to help inform immigrant families about their rights and responsibilities?

Author bio coming soon

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