Teacher does her best to shield Haitian students from cruel immigration decision

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by Sabrina Holcomb; St. Léger, second from left, top row

Wonder Woman has nothing on Nancy St. Léger.

An elementary school teacher, high school mentor, community and labor activist, parent adviser and Haitian dance troupe director, St. Léger has been a lifesaver for immigrant students.

Her job just got harder thanks to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

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Almost 60,000 Haitians throughout the United States have been here under Temporary Protected Status, a humanitarian immigration program, since a series of disasters befell their country, beginning with the devastating 2010 earthquake. After recently extending their TPS for another six months instead of the standard 18, DHS has warned Haitian enrollees the end is coming and to get their affairs in order.

St. Léger teaches in Miami Dade County, home to thousands of Haitian immigrants, many of them students. At a meeting last week with the Haitian high school students she mentors, St. Léger was bombarded with questions: How does this affect us? Are we going to be sent back to Haiti? Is this why my parents are so upset? Am I going to lose my job?

St. Léger did what she does best — zooming into action mode as she dispensed practical advice and passed out questionnaires to educators to help determine the resources their students will need in the coming months.

          Nancy St. Léger

She’s also determined to raise her fellow educators’ awareness about Black immigrant students. Although they’ve been missing from the narrative about the battle for immigration rights in this country, hardline immigration policies are taking a toll on them too.

“You have to imagine what these kids are going through,” says St. Léger, who became a U.S. citizen after emigrating from Haiti as a child. “It’s already difficult to be Black in America. You’re not allowed to have a bad day.

“Then you have the stresses of being an immigrant, struggling to assimilate and learn English,” she adds. “Many Haitian students are very shy and bullying is a big problem. And many older students have jobs in addition to going to school, because they don’t have the luxury of not working.”

To help Haitian students and parents clear these hurdles, St. Léger is developing Nouvelle L’école, an educational television program that will teach Haitian families how to navigate the school system. Another labor of love is the Haitian dance troupe she founded that makes community service and civics lessons a cornerstone for the students who join.

St. Léger wonders how many of these students will still be here in January, when TPS expires. She’s also worried about the kids in mixed-status families — U.S.-born children whose parents came here under TPS.

Students such as Vanessa, who fought back tears at a recent press conference as she confided that she’s “scared because I am nothing without my parents.”

Six months for these families to prepare is unheard of, particularly since Haiti is still reeling from natural crises, protests Marleine Bastien, a leading Haitian-American activist who reports that TPS holders are already being rounded up and deported. “There are three flights leaving Miami every week,” she says.

“Meanwhile, these kids are in limbo, and you see the stress on their faces,” shares St. Léger. “They need our guidance — teachers, counselors, everyone in the school community — to figure out what to do.”

St. Léger will not let DHS break her or her students’ spirits, however. “As educators, we’re responsible for the children who are here with us now. How can I help them while they’re here with me? That’s our bottom line.”

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