Kina, the 6-year-old daughter of one of our editors, walked into her living room one day over the summer and saw children huddled under Mylar blankets on the TV. “What are those kids doing in there?” she asked. “Are they in jail?”
Our editor, her mom, explained that the kids had been separated from their parents, and that their parents were probably in a different jail.
“Aren’t grown-ups supposed to keep kids safe?” Kina asked.
As children return to our classrooms this fall, after another summer of horrific events, they too have questions like Kina’s. As educators, we are responsible for thinking about how to respond.
Children — more than 2,500 — were torn away and separated from their parents since the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance policy” (that all adults who crossed the southern border would be criminally prosecuted) went into effect in May. Though Trump halted the policy after immense public outcry a few weeks later, hundreds of children still remain separated and in government custody (497 as of Aug. 27).
These children are living in child prisons, and their families have little way of finding them or learning of the conditions under which they are being held. Kids have been taken to at least 100 shelters in 17 states, some operated by private contractors who benefit financially from this manufactured crisis.
We’ve seen children ripped away from their parents, moms and children crying out for each other; children housed in makeshift tent cities and repurposed Walmarts (where each morning guards require them to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance in English). The family separation policy even required the creation of so-called “Tender Age” facilities for the youngest victims, some of whom are babies.
Scholars, activists, and journalists who visited these detention centers reported children being denied the most basic care and attention — guards prohibited from holding or comforting crying babies, siblings not allowed to hug each other. In Arizona there were charges of sexual abuse at two shelters; in Texas, a federal judge ordered a shelter to stop giving children psychotropic medication without a court order or parental consent.
Pediatricians and psychiatrists say these separations have caused irreparable harm to the fragile health of children. Crossing the militarized U.S. border is itself an incredible ordeal; being denied access to the comfort and protection of a parent or trusted adult in the midst of such upheaval is a prescription for long-term psychological and physical trauma.
We are heartened by the resistance we witnessed over the summer, from the occupation of ICE centers to the cadres of lawyers, journalists, and interpreters advocating for affected families. In addition to the numerous #FamiliesBelongTogether rallies, one example is the ACLU recently suing the government on behalf of parents who were deported after being coerced to sign paperwork (in English) waiving their rights to be reunited with their children. Other examples include the acts of nonviolent civil disobedience led by groups like Movimiento Cosecha that have targeted companies like Amazon and institutions like Northeastern University that have contracts with ICE and profit from family separation.
It was such activism that made it impossible for the Trump administration to continue the family separation policy in its original form. However, President Trump’s executive order to end family separations is not a retreat from his administration’s assault on migrants, asylum seekers, children, and their parents. It merely paves the way for long-term incarceration of families. Now is the time to fight more, not less.
As educators, we can act on multiple fronts. Outside the classroom, we can provide financial support to key organizations, participate in marches and direct actions, call our representatives, and organize in our neighborhoods and communities. We can use our networks to amplify the calls to reunify families, demilitarize the border, and abolish ICE. We can relentlessly resist the classification of these families as criminals, and speak to our own families, friends, and communities about the obligation to provide safe asylum for people who are fleeing unsafe, unfair, and unstable conditions — conditions created, at least in part, by U.S. imperialist policies.
In our schools and classrooms, students want and need to talk about these horrors, and they look to us for explanations, protection, and spaces to heal. Our students deserve a curriculum that’s rich in historical and contemporary context. This moment, while horrifyingly urgent, is not unique in the history of U.S. white supremacy. We encourage teachers to draw parallels between the incarceration of kidnapped immigrant children today with the experiences of enslaved children sold away from their parents, Native American families removed from their homelands at bayonet-point, Mexicans deprived of their land and rights following the 1846-48 U.S. war against Mexico, Native American children forced into repressive boarding schools, Chinese immigrant families separated at Angel Island in the early 20th century, Mexican Americans uprooted and deported during the Great Depression, and Japanese American families incarcerated during World War II.
In addition, it is important for students to understand that this policy — while horrifying — is part of a larger campaign against immigrants and their families. Receiving less front-page coverage was the Trump administration’s announcement in May that it would revoke Temporary Protected Status (TPS) from more than 400,000 people from countries like El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Honduras. TPS allows immigrants from countries afflicted by war or natural disaster to live in the United States until their safety at home can be assured. Ending TPS will also result in more family separations. It is estimated that there are close to 300,000 children — born in the United States — whose parents could be deported under the Trump administration’s plan.
Our curricula must also attend to root causes. In too many discussions of current immigration policies, the role of U.S. imperialism is left out. Students should grapple with whether the United States has a moral obligation to resettle refugees because of its significant role in creating the conditions that have led people to flee. More than 100 years of U.S. aggression in the Americas — propping up dictators, generals, and oligarchs; flooding countries with weapons; and pushing trade and economic policies that enriched a few, but impoverished the people and their lands — has fostered the instability and insecurity driving people across the border.
Of course, we cannot leave our students — or ourselves — angry and hopeless. We must also surface the inspiring ways in which people have fought for themselves and each other — the myriad ways enslaved people freed themselves, Indigenous people kept their languages and identities alive, Japanese Americans challenged the daily indignities of their incarceration as well as the constitutionality of their treatment.
We must also internalize the reality that our schools are actors in this crisis and that as educators we must be ready to put our bodies between immigration authorities and our students, and that our schools can and must be places of refuge.
When ICE recently raided a number of work sites in the tiny rural Nebraska town of O’Neill, seizing more than 100 people, local teachers and educators opened an elementary school (shuttered for the summer) to care for and support the children of the detained workers. In May 2017, a federal immigration agent came looking for a 4th grader at a Queens elementary school, according to CBS New York, but was turned away at the door. This past June, in Boston, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice and a coalition of students’ rights groups sued the school district alleging that information about a student’s immigration status had been passed to ICE. Immediately following the filing of the suit, Boston’s superintendent resigned.
If there was ever any doubt, now there is only certainty, as educators we’re on the front lines of this fight. And when students like Kina ask us if we can keep them safe, our actions must be our answer. If we refuse to talk about these issues — because they are too painful, too complicated, too sensitive, or too politically fraught — that sends a clear message that we have relinquished our responsibilities, as adults, to try to keep them safe. Our silence is complicity. Now is the time for action and solidarity.
We call on educators, students, and families to help us emphatically answer Kina’s question: We will do everything in our power to protect you. We will do everything in our power to keep you safe.