“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
For the past nine of my 14 years teaching, my students have been predominantly of Mexican descent. As an African-American, I struggled to communicate with some of my students’ parents who only spoke Spanish. So what did I do? I took three years of Spanish classes at night and on the weekend, and I even traveled alone to Guatemala for three weeks of immersion in the language.
I never really became fluent, but my efforts were enough to earn the respect of the families I served. They knew that my broken español was my way of doing whatever it took to help their children learn.
As a natural-born American citizen, I do not have issues with my “papers”—as my families with documentation issues would call them. But I cannot stay silent as some 800,000 students like mine live in constant fear of deportation should President Donald Trump repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that protects undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.
It’s only been in the last two years that I learned which of my former students were in the U.S. legally and which ones were not. President Trump’s campaign message about building a wall along the Mexican border caused some of them to come out of the shadows in protest. Others revealed to me that they were undocumented because they were drawing close to high school graduation and they wanted me to help them find scholarships to pay for college.
You see, many of my undocumented students came to America in diapers. They learned to read using the English alphabet. They learned to count to 100 pronouncing numbers in ingles.
At 16, 17, 18 years old, they consider the Southwest Side of Chicago their native land. And while their Mexican side of the family was very real through pictures and phone calls, they never actually smelled the mountainous air of their abuelo’s country ranch and could never recall the soft touch of their abuela’s wrinkled hands.
The thought of a federal agency rounding up busloads of my beautiful, bright kids and dropping them off at a dusty, no-name town just south of the border sends chills down my spine. I liken it to government-sanctioned kidnapping or child abuse, as some of the undocumented youth would have to fend for themselves in Mexico and some don’t even speak Spanish!
What educator would stand for that? Not me.
I welcome a robust, nationwide conversation about immigrant reform. I’d even entertain tough talk about enhanced border control. But I will not stand for suggestions that it is even remotely okay to punish children for the misdeeds of their parents. It’s not the kids’ fault that their parents smuggled them into this country as babies, and as teens and young adults they deserve statute of limitation protection against deportation.
As a Christian, I know that the Bible is replete with scriptures about how we must show compassion toward foreigners who live among us. As a Black person, I can empathize with other people’s struggle for freedom in the face of poverty, racism and systemic injustice. As an educator, I’ve taken an unspoken vow to protect the welfare of children and to teach them, whether they hold “papers” or not.
But most importantly, as a person—a human being—I am equipped with a conscience that tells me that there’s no justice in extracting innocent children from their homes and dumping them off in an unknown land for something that their parents did.
It’s really not a matter of politics. It’s the difference between right and wrong.