As we begin the new school year, many educators and administrators will need to address the social and emotional impact of this country's current political division, the increase of hate crimes, and effects of domestic terrorism on our immigrant students and families. In particular, newcomer students will be arriving in their schools and classrooms having faced a myriad of challenges that have led to fear, mistrust, and extreme anxiety. I don’t want to over-generalize or stereotype, but many newcomers will have arrived after living the effects of death, violence, extreme instability, amongst other things. Many were uprooted from the only life they have known in order to flee to the United States in the hopes of being granted asylum.
In 2016, I was part of a group from UCLA who went to El Salvador on a humanitarian visit to study root causes of migration. The kindness of Salvadoran people was overwhelming. But the violence they were living was no secret, and everywhere we went we knew we were being watched. The same M-16 A2 rifle I was trained with as a Marine was on full display by police and security forces in the country. In the midst of the militarized presence, children used their play time to simultaneously hang out with their friends and feed their families while searching for oysters in the Jiquilisco Bay. Local vendors were further indebted to local gangs due to the “taxes” imposed upon them. In most cases, there are only two options. Just months after we left, a local hardline mayor with whom we met was brutally murdered in a field on the outskirts of town. This is only a glimpse of the reality faced by many of your students and their families.
For many, leaving to the United States is just the beginning of a whole new set of challenges and unfathomable situations. The journey “al Norte” for your students and families may have begun on “La Bestia” also known as the “Train of Death”. Here they would have faced the danger of surviving well over 30 hours on top of a train without any side rails for protection. During this journey, falling from atop the train is the least of their worries, as gangs, rogue police, and others seek to rob them of their only possessions. Young boys and men are targeted to increase the numbers of these bandits; young girls and women are targeted for much worse.
Along the way, they will have also experienced kindness and humanitarianism. Many Mexicans have made a personal mission of looking out for, protecting, and feeding migrants and asylum seekers who pass through from Central America and other nations. For example, las Patronas are a group of indigenous women who toss bags of food and water to those on “La Bestia” as the train passes through their villages, they consider it their duty as human beings to look out for others.
Scattered throughout Mexico are Las Casas del Migrante—The Migrant Houses. At these facilities, asylum seekers and migrants are able to disembark from La Bestia and stay for up to 3 days to shower, freshen up, and receive hot meals. In 2013, I was invited to La Casa del Migrante, San Luis Potosí (SLP) on two different occasions. I watched as men and women took the risk of jumping from the train, and others attempting to re-board after their stay. Inside La Casa, I was able to hear their stories and get a better understanding of why someone would leave their homeland and make the journey thousands of miles to a country that they don’t know. This experience gave me a much greater appreciation, not only for them, but also for my ancestors who had fled Germany and Ireland due to economic hardship, persecution, and the great social and political upheavals of the nineteenth century in hopes to reach the “New World” and ensure that their future generations would have their best shot at a better life. Ironically, this new world had already been populated, for thousands of years, by the ancestors of the same people whom I met at La Casa del Migrante, SLP, and the ancestors of your students.
Many of our migrant students and families have also spent a considerable amount of time on the Mexican side of the border in tent cities and makeshift encampments in Tijuana and other border towns as they await their opportunity to cross into the U.S. and make their asylum claims. Despite the rhetoric from those who know very little about immigration and asylum laws, asylum is a legal process for requesting entry into the United States.
Currently, the U.S. government has taken a much harsher stance against immigrants and asylum seekers. Many of your students and their families have spent time in government-sponsored migrant shelters and detention centers, under extremely inhumane conditions. Babies and toddlers are ripped from their mothers, and children are subjected to horrible treatment that I would wish on no one except for those who think that this is ok. As a veteran and someone who loves this country dearly, it breaks my heart to see history repeating itself.
While in detention, your students and families may have faced threatened abuse and overt abuse such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, solitary confinement, and psychological abuse combined with lack of proper hygiene, nutrition, sleeping conditions, and sanitation. This has been their first impression of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. An impression that they will undoubtedly carry with them for the rest of their lives if they have no one else to show them the kind and caring side of who we can be as a country. As educators, you may at times feel you are not well-equipped or trained to deal with the trauma and social-emotional supports of immigrant students and their families, but you absolutely have the power to create culturally responsive classroom and school environments.
As educators, we are in a unique position to right wrongs and change lives.
I grew up carrying my household turmoil with me to school on a daily basis, and I can tell you personally that focusing was a virtually impossible task for me. As such, I was labeled as the disruptive child who would never amount to much. That was in the 3rd and 4th grade. By the time I made it to the 5th grade, I had listened to those educators who had placed those labels on me and partitioned me to the back of the classroom. But all it took was one teacher, just one. An amazing teacher who cared enough and had enough socio-emotional awareness to help me realize the potential that I never knew I had. Mrs. Dorothy Davis told me I was one of the smartest kids in her classroom. In that moment, and those that followed, she changed my life forever and I’ve been believing her ever since.
Of course, my situation is drastically different from those faced by many of your students. Even for those who have been here for a while or those who were born here, the trauma that they are facing is something that most in this country will never know. Most of us never had to face the fear and anxiety of never seeing our parents again because they may get pulled over while going to the grocery store, going to work, or picking us up from school. But this is the everyday reality for many of our students. It’s important that we find the empathy and compassion opposite of what they may have experienced thus far. It’s vital to show them kindness and love while finding ways to connect with them and their families.
Now more than ever, take the time to get to know your students and their families. As you build trust with each other. Get to know their stories. Don’t read their stories, don’t hear their stories, feel their stories. Engage them further by including cultural or artistic works utilizing music, visuals, and arts in your lessons. Work to increase your own socio-cultural competency by learning about the countries, languages, cultures, regions, and situations that your students and families come from. Above all, keep it real and show them love, while showing them the very best of their new country. In doing that, you will gradually shift their perceptions of the world around them and boost their confidence to new levels, while changing their lives and yours as well.
Thank you for your service!