by Mary Ellen Flannery
On a makeshift stage in El Paso, Texas, former Texas Regional Teacher of the Year Leslie Anaya delivered a message to the roughly 15,000 immigrant children who are held captive in federal detention centers, where they are denied an education and separated from their mothers, fathers, and anybody else who loves them.
“Don’t cry,” she said. “Sing. Sing because you have so many people fighting for you, so many teachers who won’t stop fighting to make sure you’re treated humanely and that your families will be together.”
Hundreds of National Education Association (NEA) members, including dozens of state Teachers of the Year, were in El Paso last month, for the “Teach-In for Freedom,” an all-day event organized by Teachers Against Child Detention (TACD) and led by National Teacher of the Year Mandy Manning to protest the inhumane detention of children and the criminalization of immigrant families.
“All children deserve to be in school,” Manning said. “All children have endless potential and deserve to reach that potential. All children deserve to be free.”
“We’re not here for the free t-shirts or the selfies. Don’t just post and go home and be comfortable. Don’t ever get comfortable. Because the 200 to 300 families dropped off every day at one of these centers — they’re not going to be comfortable ever.”
Educators and others have been outraged by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of separating immigrant and refugee children as young as 18 months old from their parents. Detained in more than 100 government detention centers across 17 states, these children have been denied access to public education, and likely will suffer irreparable, lifelong psychological damage, educators said. The practice also violates their fundamental right to seek asylum.
“The NEA family believes children belong with their families—not in cages,” said NEA Executive Committee member Robert Rodríguez, a California middle school special educator, to the crowd who gathered in El Paso’s San Jacinto Square. “We demand that the U.S. government never separate children from their families. Not at the border. Not ever!”
Since the Trump administration began its practice of separating children from their parents, NEA has made four specific humanitarian demands:
-The U.S. government never separate children from their parents—not at border crossing, not in detention proceedings, not ever.
-Immigrant children be provided with at least six hours of language-appropriate classroom instruction every day.
-Child detention centers be open to visits from doctors, teachers, social workers, clergy, and other children’s advocates.
-The U.S. government comply with the guidelines for basic standards of care for children, as set forth by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“We have a moral responsibility to protect these children, especially these innocent immigrant children who are fleeing violence and war,” said Illinois teacher Gladys Marquez, chair of the NEA Hispanic Caucus. “Our actions matter. Our leadership matters. There must not be any doubt about where we stand.”
A Teach-In for Freedom
Across nine hours, as the sun made its way from one side to the other of the El Paso square, more than a dozen teachers from across the U.S. provided lessons on the history of immigration in the U.S., how asylum works, detention centers today, and more. They shared art, poetry, songs and letters written by their students, making sure their voices also were heard.
Although the data is hard to track, and the U.S. government has admitted to “losing track” of at least a thousand children, an estimated 15,000 children are being held today, found New Jersey Teacher of the Year Amy Andersen.
The trauma of being forcibly separated from their mothers and fathers will be a lifelong burden, said Texas State Teachers Association vice president Ovidia Molina (featured in Cover photo). She knows this because she was separated from her mother for four years when her mother first came to the U.S. to seek a better life. “It is still traumatic for me to have been separated from my mother, and I was with family that loved me and supported me. Imagine the trauma that the children today are going through!”
Carrying a photo of herself as a child, Molina told the crowd, “This is the face of an immigrant…This is not the face of a criminal. This is not the face of a person who needs to be in a cage.”
Kelly Holstine, Minnesota Teacher of the Year, also explained the proven psychological and educational consequences of traumatic experiences in childhood. “I have met hundreds of students who struggle because of trauma and it breaks my heart,” she said. “Please help us make this country better for our kids—all our kids, whether they’re documented or not—because all our kids are all our kids.”
The hundreds of educators and allies who attended the teach-in are committed to making a difference for all children, they said. Their fight didn’t end at sunset. “We’re not here for the free t-shirts or the selfies,” said Utah’s Chelsie Acosta, a 2017 NEA Social Justice Activist of the Year nominee. “Don’t just post and go home and be comfortable. Don’t ever get comfortable. Because the 200 to 300 families dropped off every day at one of these centers — they’re not going to be comfortable ever.”
Mary Ellen Flannery is a writer with the National Education Association. NEA Today senior writer John Rosales contributed to this report.
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