Historic teach-in to end Trump’s incarceration of immigrant children energizes teachers

by Félix Pérez

Sarahí Monterrey’s daughters felt unsettled about the trip that would take their mom 1,600 miles from them and their daily routines together. Monterrey comforted them by counting aloud   ̶ “one, two”   ̶ the number of nights before she returned.

“Mommy’s going to help and be a voice for children,” she explained.

Reassurances to her children aside, Monterrey, the 2019 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year, was not quite sure what to expect at last month’s national teach-in in El Paso, Texas. But when she met another teacher on her outbound flight to the daylong event, the chance run-in reinforced her decision.

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The goal of Monterrey, other Teachers of the Year, fellow educators, community leaders, and students is to raise awareness and demand an end to the Trump administration’s incarceration of more than 11,000 immigrant toddlers, children, and teens, some as young as 5 months old. The event was organized by Teachers Against Child Detention, a group founded by Mandy Manning, the 2018 National Teacher of the Year.

Sarahí Monterrey

There have been more than 4,500 complaints from October 2014 to July 2018 about sexual abuse of incarcerated immigrant children by adult staff, including fondling, kissing, and rape, the U.S. Justice Department revealed last week. The complaints spiked when the Trump administration hastily introduced its “zero tolerance” policy of separating migrant families at the border.

In December, two children — a 7-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy — died from illness while detained.

Monterrey, an English Learner teacher at Waukesha North High School, gathered with the other educators on a mostly sunny and brisk day less than half a mile from the U.S.-Mexico border. They took turns delivering lesson blocks related to immigration and immigrant children, including one about long-lasting emotional trauma caused by incarceration and family separation.

Monterrey said:

“To feel the energy, the camaraderie that day, was very powerful. It wasn’t a protest, it wasn’t a march. It was an opportunity to educate others.”

Monterrey added, “I am very passionate that we as educators can be a voice. It’s in our DNA. If not us, then who?”

During her lesson block at the teach-in, Monterrey recounted her experience coming to the United States from El Salvador as a young child. She drew upon an incident that occurred this past summer with her 5-year-old at a local pool to underscore the harm inflicted on separated children. “I went to get a towel and could see the panic in her eyes when she turned around and didn’t see me. That was one split second that my daughter was separated from me. I can’t imagine what these children are feeling who are separated from their families for months.”

Monterrey used her trip as an opportunity to engage the female students in a club she created at her school called Girl Talk. They collected books to donate to children in detention centers. The students wrote an inspirational note for each book.

For Monterrey and the others involved in the teach-in, each is determined to continue to raise awareness and serve as advocates in their schools and communities until detained immigrant children are no longer exposed to conditions that harm and traumatize them. Among the changes they seek:

Monterrey said her students, friends, and community “have been so supportive and eager” to learn about her teach-in experience. She sees those types of conversations – in schools, churches, communities and among families in town after town — as crucial in dispelling inaccurate information and seeing immigrant children “no differently than our children, our students.”

Are you ready to help put an end to the incarceration of immigrant children and family separations? Become a member the NEA EdJustice League, a rapid response text program where we organize to win.