A few years ago, one of my students told me something that made me furious at the U.S. government: she said she was afraid to come to school because she thought ICE might show up in the classroom to deport her. We strategized together about what to do if this happens.
I was left outraged that we even had to have this conversation. The classroom should be a sanctuary where all students can learn, without having to worry about being kidnapped by the state and removed from their families and communities.
This was just as heartbreaking as when another student asked me if you need to purchase a password in order to become an American citizen, as if the United States is a VIP club that is simply too expensive for people from his community.
These kinds of situations are becoming increasingly common; students will come in to class depressed, worried their parents or siblings are about to be deported. Many are from working class immigrant communities that are slated to be left out by all of the comprehensive immigration reform proposals tossed back and forth in Congress. They are the ones the Democratic Party is willing to jettison and the Republicans are ready to demonize as the “bad immigrants”, not the good Dreamers. Many of them have gotten entangled in the criminal justice system because of racial profiling or because they had to hustle to get by since they can’t access legal jobs. They can’t afford college because of rising tuition. They are marked as gang members simply because of the neighborhoods they live in. When congresspeople talks about increasing security, they mean kicking out people like them.
But where are they supposed to go? Many Mexican youth can’t find jobs in either the US or Mexico, and are facing violence in both places. They are a generation that is getting squeezed out of both countries, and have nowhere to go unless they fight back. They are the North American cohort of millennial youth, children of the economic crisis who are facing a precarious future. This generation is rising up all over the world, from the Arab Spring to the migrant worker strikes and riots in China’s Pearl River Delta.
Many of the mainstream immigrant rights groups don’t want to take up their cases because it is seen as too difficult to convince the government that they “deserve” to stay. But when I talk with them, I don’t see threats to national security, I see intelligent, caring, creative young people who are active in their communities and are trying to build lives here.
As a teacher, I feel blessed to be connected with undocumented activists who are developing innovative organizing strategies for stopping deportations. The National Immigrant Youth Alliance is at the forefront of an emerging movement of undocumented folks who have been reuniting families torn apart by deportation, particularly through the recent Bring Them Home actions.
If I weren’t connected with these folks I’d be depressed and helpless when my students share these stories. But now I can suggest some ways they can build solidarity to stop deportations, and I know there are skilled activists who can support them in this, people who come from similar backgrounds and have faced their fears together.
For this reason, I strongly encourage readers to support NIYA’s current efforts to free four young people from immigration detention. One of these youth was deported right from his high school classroom, and has been imprisoned in detention for 71 days after trying to cross back into the U.S.
As a history teacher, I often facilitate conversations among students about past social movements such as the civil rights movement and Chicano/Chicana labor struggles. Students will debate whether or not things have gotten better since then. I think that 40 years from now we will remember stories of students being deported from our classrooms and will see ICE’s practices as barbaric, analogous to the oppression communities of color faced before the 1960s. But that will only happen if we all take action to prevent the state’s ability to kidnap, deport, and imprison youth today.