Immigrant issues have been at the top of the AFT’s agenda for some time now, but family separation and the incarceration of young undocumented children at the border have elevated their urgency to crisis level. Today delegates passed a special order of business declaring the AFT’s “horror and outrage” at the treatment of undocumented immigrant children and calling for “total repeal of the Trump administration’s ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policies and indefinite family incarcerations.”
“In the years ahead when we look back, ... we’ll be asking ourselves, and our children will be asking us, what did you do when they put children in jails?” said Louis Malfaro, president of Texas AFT, as he stepped to the mic in support of the special order of business. “What did you do when our government violated its own laws and international laws regarding asylum seekers by separating children from their parents, by using them as a tool and a weapon to discourage people fleeing violence, rape and murder coming to our shores and asking for help?”
“There’s a hell of a lot we can do,” he continued, including working with nonprofits that are organizing legal defense and protection for immigrant families, protesting in the streets, and bearing witness at places like the Tornillo, Texas, detention centers, where AFT leaders gathered with other activists earlier this month.
“This is life and death,” said Yvette Felarca, a delegate from the Berkeley (Calif.) Federation of Teachers. As a member of a family that fled the regime of Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos, she is particularly moved to stand up against the racism and abuse faced by immigrants here in the United States. “There is nothing more important for us to do than to stand with these immigrant children and make sure we mobilize and do everything we can do to shut down immigrant concentration camps.”
Jose Calderon, president of the Hispanic Federation, spoke just before the special order was introduced. Calling the separation of children from their families “horrific, atrocious and abominable,” he blamed the terror on President Trump. “We have a White House today that felt it was okay to institute government-sanctioned child abuse,” he said, describing the treatment of thousands of children, including toddlers and infants, who have been separated from their parents and placed in child detention centers. “It is a shocking assault on the norms of human rights, protection against torture and treatment of children, not to mention a total abandonment of decency and humanity,” he said.
Calderon described the AFT’s visit to Tornillo, where he, AFT President Randi Weingarten and a large group of community leaders and clergy were turned away when they tried to deliver clean clothing, books and teddy bears to children held in detention centers earlier this month. In a Kafka-esque scenario that he also compared to the dystopian story “The Handmaid’s Tale,” he described children there being forced to clean bathrooms, told how and when to eat, and forbidden to hug their loved ones.
But as shocking as these atrocities are, Calderon said he was confident that “resistance is strong and making a difference.” He noted that the administration has already backtracked on some policy and is trying to reunite separated families—sadly, stymied by their own neglect to keep records of where they sent children and parents. But many groups are protesting the way the government has handled these cases, making this a shared struggle.
“We have made common cause with each other and other Americans who feel something is fundamentally un-American about this administration,” said Calderon. Rather than driving us apart, recent events have “compelled us to hold tightly to one another.”
“Our families and communities are resilient,” said Calderon, “and by working together we can turn the tide.”
[Virginia Myers, photos by Elliott Cramer]