By Sabrina Holcomb
ESL teacher Eloy Delgado was speechless the day one of the students in his Introduction to Education class confided, “I’m a Dreamer.” A child of immigrant parents himself, Delgado never would have guessed the bright teenager he had taught for two years and was grooming to become a future teacher wasn’t born in the U.S.
“This wasn’t some abstract issue on the news,” notes Delgado, who works in a diverse school district with a large Polish-American community and a growing Latinx, Haitian, and Arabic-speaking student population. The experience convinced him to run for president of his local union.
“How many other educators don’t know they have undocumented youth in their classrooms?” asks Delgado, who is now president of New Jersey’s Linden Education Association (LEA).
These students will need our support more than ever as the DACA and TPS programs that protected them are threatened.
The challenge for Delgado and other LEA activists: Raising awareness of the issues, building support for students, and organizing for action even as the clock ticks down on these programs. Getting creative, they decided to invite early career and veteran educators from across the region to a “Fire and Ice” evening that gave new meaning to social justice. Fire was dinner and Latin dance lessons, while Ice was a discussion of the issues facing undocumented students and their families.
“Our theme was family—the need to support immigrant families while building our union family,” explains teacher and organizer Gabe Tanglao, who spoke to the group about the escalation of ICE raids in immigrant communities and NEA’s efforts to pass a Dream Act by the end of this year. “We often talk about issues from a very cerebral place. But we designed and organized this event from the heart.”
The approach worked says high school social studies teacher Monica Goncalves, who was moved by the event to share her own story. Named Union County Teacher of the Year by the New Jersey Education Association, Goncalves, who was brought to the U.S. at the age of six, knows firsthand what some of her students are going through.
“Fortunately, I became legalized before I entered high school,” says Goncalves. “But as a high school teacher, I see undocumented honor students with great grades who don’t see a future for themselves, and with the recent turn of events, they’re more scared than ever.”
Goncalves, who still believes there’s hope for these students, has a message for Congress: “Please pass the Dream Act. We need to make a space for students who are brought here at a young age and have shown they are going to be great members of our society.”
Meanwhile LEA president Eloy Delgado urges other local unions to hold their own Fire and Ice or other “outside of the wall” events. “Don’t wait,” he advises. “Even if you start with only five people at first, five becomes 10, 10 becomes 15, and after 15, you’re building a movement.”