Almost 200 AFT members crowded the sidewalk in front of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office on July 12, taking time away from the TEACH conference to demonstrate against the cruel abuse of immigrant children at the United States-Mexico border.
“Classrooms, not cages,” they chanted, referring to the children behind bars at camps for families detained at the border. “Let our babies go.” Members carried signs demanding the government “close the camps,” “stop detention and deportation,” and “Stop Donald Trump’s attack on freedom, justice and equality.”
The rally, organized by the AFT and attended by presidential candidate Jay Inslee; Hector Sanchez, executive director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement; and other politicians and activist leaders, drew attention to the deplorable conditions in U.S. detention camps at the border. Under President Trump’s immigration policy, children have been separated from their families and often held in prison-like conditions with little opportunity to wash, have to sleep on cold floors and, by multiple accounts, told to drink from toilets. To date, at least six children have died while in U.S. custody.
AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus, who spoke at the rally, used the words “unconscionable” and “heinous” to describe the conditions at the camps. “We stand here today to say what the United States is doing is an abomination [and] contrary to everything we believe.
“We have devoted our lives and our careers to caring for children,” DeJesus told the crowd, which blocked sidewalks in front of the Customs and Border Protection office. “It is our moral obligation to be here. We will not look away.”
Teachers were deeply moved to stand up for their immigrant students. Some got teary-eyed talking about conditions at the border, and were incredulous that it would be necessary to demonstrate for something so basic as caring for young children. Others related to the immigration experience through their own families’ history. Christine Moyer, a teacher from Medway, Mass., said her father migrated from Italy through Ellis Island. “They came with dignity,” she said. “Ellis Island was rough, but nobody was saying, ‘you can’t come through.’”
Moyer also remembers an uncle and aunt, on her mother’s side of the family, who went through the concentration camps in France; her uncle never made it out, and her aunt was “scarred for life.”
That will be the children in the camps at the U.S. border, said Dan Smith, president of the Seminole Education Association in Florida. After living through that kind of trauma, “the rest of their lives are going to be different,” he said. Smith, who crafted the Holocaust curriculum for his schools, compared that experience with the border camps and said he felt compelled to protest. “If not me, then who?”
Educators also spoke of the harm that broader immigration policy is invoking on their students and their families, who live in fear of deportation and Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids. “How are you going to focus on school when you don’t know if, when you go home, your parents are going to be there?” asked Danika Nieves, a second-year teacher from Philadelphia.
Crissy Richardson, a teacher in Bucks County, Pa., teared up when she recalled a “wonderful” high school student—involved in all kinds of school activities, a member of the student council, an enthusiastic member of the school community—who came to Richardson to say goodbye because the girl was being deported after 10 years in this country. “It was the saddest thing,” said Richardson. “The system failed her, and we lose as a country because she’s not going to be with us.”
The AFT rally comes a month after our leaders traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, to demand that the United Nations Human Rights Council take action against atrocities at the U.S.-Mexico border. AFT members have also traveled to detention centers at the border to take supplies to detained immigrants—though the unionists were turned away. We’ve held workshops for immigrant families, offering guidance on how to protect themselves from deportation as well as resources to support them should a family member be swept away. And we’ve worked to protect our members in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
The protest on July 12 was one more way to shine a light on immigration issues and particularly the atrocities being committed at our border. “I want to shake people up,” said Moyer. “You can’t sleep anymore. We’re making noise because we need to wake up.”
[Virginia Myers/Miisha Nash photos]