Learning to better support immigrant students

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Imagine the life you’ve made for yourself hanging by a thread. That is what it’s like for Eduardo Quezada, who told his story during a PSRP conference workshop on supporting immigrant children. A new AFT member who works at a public school cafeteria in New Mexico, Quezada arrived in the United States at age 9 and later obtained his legal DACA status (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) to stay in the United States. He graduated from high school in 2010.

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“I’m proud to be here,” he said. “You cannot miss the opportunity to study.” Still, one of his brothers was killed recently in the violence in Juarez, Mexico, and another brother is being deported from the United States. “It’s been hard,” Quezada said, “but nothing is impossible.”

Many paraprofessionals and school-related personnel have lived through stories like Eddie’s. The nightmare of deportation among students, their families and school staff. Kids going to school who are stopped and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Young children who watch as their parents are taken into custody, then are taken to a school where there’s no rapid response plan in place. Despite their contributions, including billions in taxes, these undocumented students, their families and AFT members live under constant threat from the White House, which has steadily escalated a crisis along the southern border.

“The role we play as educators is critically important,” said Cesar Moreno Perez, lead immigration expert in the AFT’s Human Rights and Community Relations Department, citing the massive teach-in our union led this spring in El Paso, Texas. “We must not forget that thousands of children are still being held in private detention centers.”


Eddie Quezada with AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson, left, and AFT Vice President Kathy Chavez of AFT New Mexico.Eddie Quezada with AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson, left, and AFT Vice President Kathy Chavez of AFT New Mexico.

PSRPs shared their own horror stories. Anastasia Hernandez-Vasquez, a member from Oregon whose husband is undocumented, has spent $187,000 on paperwork for his documentation and is serving as a legal guardian for 27 immigrant children across the United States.

“I’m a U.S. citizen married to an undocumented alien who’s the best person I’ve ever met,” she said. “My husband was good enough to raise a Marine but not good enough to stay in this country.”

Her husband, she added, couldn’t even risk coming with her to the airport when she flew to the PSRP conference. “It’s a horrible way to live.”

Members at the workshop noted a rise in students’ panic attacks, eating and sleeping disorders, and emotional distress. They discussed “sensitive locations” where ICE enforcement officers are not supposed to go, such as schools, hospitals and churches. They also discussed the promise of federal legislation that has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019, H.R. 6.

What can be done

AFT members have come together to support immigrant children and their families. United Teachers Los Angeles has established an immigrant defense fund, provides a hotline and has hired an immigration attorney for immigrant families. Earlier this month, striking teachers and support staff from two Chicago charter schools, Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy and Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy, won sanctuary language to protect the schools’ overwhelmingly Latinx and immigrant student population.

At the national level, members can find free resources at AFT.org/immigration, Share My Lesson and Colorín Colorado. The AFT also offers model contract language locals can use to bargain.

Other workshops offered hands-on techniques for supporting English learners and gaining cultural competency. Joni Anderson and Ingrid Miera, both members of Education Minnesota-Osseo, are EL paraprofessionals at an elementary school where more than half the students are English learners.

Miera described types of conversational and academic language she uses with EL students, and strategies such “pre-teaching” basic concepts, such as raising your hand in class, so that kids can participate. She also stressed that immigrant students need to learn academic as well as conversational language, and suggested that paras explain, for instance, that “accelerate” means “go faster.” Anderson suggested techniques including sentence starters/stems, broad gestures to indicate reading or talking, and guiding questions.


ELL paraprofessionals and AFT trainers Ingrid Miera, left, and Joni Anderson of Education Minnesota-Osseo.ELL paraprofessionals and AFT trainers Ingrid Miera, left, and Joni Anderson of Education Minnesota-Osseo.

Miera demonstrated a technique called “total physical response,” which models the language in pantomime. She demonstrated in German, her own native language, “opening the book,” “writing in the book” and “standing up.” One kid loved this game so much, she said, that he became the teacher and taught his own language.

Using our union voice

In the session on deportation, AFT member Eddie Quezada said he opened up about his DACA status to his boss, the school cafeteria manager, so they could be ready for anything. “How can we help each other?” Quezada asked. “I come from a family that we work hard. But the thing is, as a union, how can we help these people, my people, to benefit each other? What’s the possible thing that we can do to increase our voice? I don’t know nothing about this right now. All I can say is that I’m learning. I am happy to be here, but it is painful. All I can say is thank you.”

It’s important not to remain silent, PSRPs said. One suggested bargaining for a professional development day to train staff how to support immigrant students. Another suggested working with allies like Catholic Charities and LULAC (the League of United Latin American Citizens). A few of our local unions are even holding citizenship clinics. “The union gave me my voice,” one member said. “Not only am I a citizen, but now I’m a registered voter.”

[Annette Licitra]