More and more asylum-seeking immigrant families are feeling the threat of separation at the border, raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and hate crimes like the mass shooting in El Paso, and AFT members are bearing witness to all of it: Our students live in fear that their families will be torn apart, will be deported or will experience cruel discrimination. Many of our members are personally affected as well.
That’s why the AFT is rallying to help.
At the border
AFT President Randi Weingarten and AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus traveled to McAllen, Texas, Aug. 14, joining AFT educators and nurses from Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Texas to check on the condition of the children in the detention centers there. Joining our AFT delegation was 2018 National Teacher of the Year and founder of Teachers Against Child Detention Mandy Manning. Department of Homeland Security officers denied them entry, and when they held a prayer vigil outside the detention center, the officers interrupted.
“I am upset,” said DeJesus. “I am angry. We have the compassion, we have the heart, we have the means, and we want to go in, but they are denying us that.”
Teachers talked about how important it is to take care of children, especially when they are separated from their parents—but that was not possible during their visit in McAllen. Still, said Weingarten, “we will not be deterred. We as the teachers of America, we as the nurses of America, we as the representatives of working people of America, we will bear witness to the atrocities that our country is doing to people leaving countries [where] they are oppressed.
“At the end of the day, compassion and dignity and decency should be the watchwords of the United States of America. That is who we are as the teachers of America, and that is what we demand of our government.”
After the visit to the detention center, the AFT group delivered blankets, toys and other supplies to children at a post-detention processing relief center run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. Refugees there find a safe environment where they can receive legal orientation and information, food and water, hygiene products, warm showers, clean clothes, temporary shelter, medical supplies and more.
Meanwhile, work continues among local students who have formed a group called Beyond the Borders to volunteer with unaccompanied minors and children separated from their families; they shared heart-wrenching stories with visiting union members, who also met with local teachers to get a full picture of the crisis at the border.
ICE raids in Mississippi
In Mississippi, where recent ICE raids displaced hundreds of immigrants working in chicken processing plants, members of AFT Mississippi have joined the United Food and Commercial Workers union, local Catholic churches and immigration nonprofits to offer legal help and assistance reuniting families, and to provide food and supplies. The AFT is also working with the local Head Start and elementary school there to set up “care closets” for those who need hygiene products, clothing and other personal items.
The Mississippi raids hit AFT members especially close to home, as they coincided with the beginning of the school year. “While children in Mississippi were at their first day of school, their parents were being rounded up by the government,” says Weingarten. “Those kids came home ready to talk about what they learned at school, who they met and what they saw, only to be greeted with abject fear at the hands of a cruel government policy designed to terrorize an already frightened community.”
“As educators, we know that separation from a parent causes trauma for a child that can impede learning opportunities and social and emotional health,” says Jackson Federation of Teachers President Akemi Stout. “Our members will do their part as frontline protectors of students.”
AFT volunteers like Delfina Guevara, an emergency room nurse and member of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees in New Jersey, are helping to connect families to the resources they need. Guevara, a second-generation Guatemalan, feels a special connection to the people detained in Mississippi, since most are from Guatemala, and she says she “wanted to be a little light of hope for the children and the parents. I want them to feel safe.”
Long-term commitment to immigrant families
The AFT is a longtime advocate for immigrants, offering workshops and fliers on what to do if ICE comes to the door, resources and guidance for teachers who want to support their immigrant students and families, and materials to ensure immigrants know their rights. We also advocate on a national scale for more-sensible immigration law, rallying for justice at the border, contributing to immigrant advocacy conferences fighting the Trump administration’s attempt to dismantle the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and supporting the Dream and Promise Act of 2019 to allow people who were brought to the United States as young children to stay.
“Immigrants are part of the fabric of our nation’s story,” says Weingarten. “They are our neighbors, our colleagues and our friends as well as a crucial part of our economy and our history.”