by Félix Pérez/image courtesy of Montserrat Garibay
It was only the second trip to Washington, DC, for teacher Areli Zárate, and the pace and button-downed demeanor of Capitol Hill denizens served as a stark reminder that she was a long way from home in Austin, Texas. But no matter. Zárate was here to give voice to her students, their families and millions of others whose fate hinges on a legal challenge discussed this week in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court was hearing oral arguments in the much-anticipated United States v. Texas. Outside, Zárate, other educators, clerics, nuns, students, families and thousands of other people from across the nation rallied on the steps of the court.
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At issue is a decision that could upend lives and communities. While the case has been making its way through the lower courts, children feared their families would be separated, and DREAMer students and parents wanting to keep their families together anxiously awaited the Supreme Court’s decision.
“I want the Supreme Court justices to know we are people whose lives have been in limbo” while the courts determine the fate of the challenge to executive actions by President Barack Obama that provide relief to immigrant families, said Zárate. “I am committed to supporting DREAMer students by continuing to advocate for them.”
In November 2014, President Obama announced unveiled executive actions on immigration: Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) and expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). These two initiatives would allow millions of immigrants to apply for protection from deportation and a work permit. Soon after the president announced the initiatives, Texas and 25 other states filed a lawsuit challenging them. The orders have been on hold since February 2015.
Among the educators who rallied at the Supreme Court was Gladys Márquez, a high school English Language Learner teacher from Blue Island, Ill. “All educators have an ethical and moral responsibility to serve all students. I want the Supreme Court to know my students are individuals who aspire to achieve and contribute, and the only way they can do that is to feel safe that their families will not be taken away from them. For these students, our country is the only home they’ve ever known.”
Physical education teacher Daniel Argueta, from Schaumburg, Ill., said his participation in Monday’s rally was driven by his calling as an educator and as the son of immigrants. “I am committed to supporting DREAMers by being the voice, advocate and organizer for those whose voice needs to be heard. I am advocating for DREAMers because there is no difference between them and me. I see myself in them.”
Educators, said Zárate, are speaking out because they want students to be free of the fear and shame that comes with being undocumented or having a mother, father, sibling or grandparent who is undocumented. “It wasn’t until high school that I became aware that I was undocumented,” she admitted. Zárate, who can teach because she qualified for President Obama’s DACA program, added, “Even when I applied to colleges, I tried to hide who I was from my best friend. I was ashamed.”
Montserrat Garibay, a national board certified pre-K teacher from Austin, Texas, said immigrant students have much to offer. “They have the potential to be the game-changers that our communities need,” said Garibay, who came to the United States with her family as a child to flee abuse. “As a country, we gain so much by opening the door for DREAMer students.”
Just like generations of students before them, DREAMers and refugee students realize school is the surest road to achieving their goals. But these students’ sense of school as a supportive environment has been shaken lately because of an aggressive crackdown on families and unaccompanied children crossing the border. Educators report anxiety, fear and increased school absences as stories about students being apprehended, sometimes en route to or near school, and held over for deportation occur with greater frequency.
It’s that fear that Garibay, Zárate, Márquez, Argueta and 11 other educators shared at a meeting convened Tuesday by U.S. Education Secretary John King. The educators, using personal stories, communicated the emotional and educational toll federal immigration raids are having on students, their families, schools and entire communities. They pressed King to speak out within the Obama administration for the release of students who have been detained and scheduled for deportation, including Wildin Acosta, a high school student seized by immigration agents from his front yard early this year as he prepared to go to school and his family looked on. In response to accounts of schools denying enrollment to undocumented students, the educators also recommended that the Education Department issue a guidance to districts reminding them of their legal obligation to educate all students.
“Like all educators, the secretary has a responsibility to provide a safe environment for our students,” said Garibay.
While Garibay and the other educators were pleased to be able to have the ear of Secretary King and share their concerns for their students and their families, they didn’t leave the meeting without a commitment from King and his staff to follow up on their requests.