AUSTIN, Texas ― After an immigration sweep this month led to dozens of arrests here, a group of elementary school students looked to their teacher for an explanation. The teacher, who is forbidden from taking political stances in the classroom, asked them to write or draw what they were feeling.
“I’m scared they’ll take my mother or my father,” one student wrote. “I hate you dunel trump [sic].”
“I am angry and sad because I thinck I am going to Mexico [sic],” wrote another student. “I don’t speak Spanish. I know English. i am frum Austin [sic].” Another child wrote in Spanish about feeling “very scared because Donal trump says Mexico will pay for the wall and Mexico doesn’t want to.” One student drew a sad face shedding tears.
This month’s wave of hundreds of immigration arrests across the country included dozens of people without criminal records — a break with recent practice that has increased anxiety in immigrant communities. Now children are bringing those fears into the classroom, Texas teachers and parents tell The Huffington Post. HuffPost is withholding the names of the teachers because they were not authorized to speak to the media and risk losing their jobs.
Any extensive ICE arrests will inevitably affect children — including U.S. citizens — Donald Kerwin, the executive director of the Center for Migration Studies in New York, said, emphasizing the uncertainty that Trump has injected into the immigration debate. His organization estimates that 5.7 million U.S. citizen children nationwide live in households with at least one undocumented parent or close relative.
“It’s difficult to think of a crueler fate for a child than to see their parent deported,” Kerwin told HuffPost. “It’s like their world turns upside down on them. Studies show they mourn, have trouble sleeping, their eating patterns change. Some cannot concentrate in school, they’re fearful and some withdraw, while others act out in anger. Beyond losing a parent, they’re often dealing with the sorrow and distress of another adult, typically a second parent.”
Earlier this month, a student in a second Central Texas classroom approached his teacher to say his mother was thinking of leaving the United States rather than face the possibility of deportation. The child’s parent left Central America five years ago and is seeking asylum here, but now fears she’ll be deported instead. She doesn’t want to bring her U.S.-born child to the violence-plagued country of her birth. And if she and her brother — the child’s uncle — were deported, her son would be left without an immediate family member to step in as a parent.
The parent now says she plans to stay in the United States while her case continues. But to put her mind at ease, her son’s 22-year-old teacher offered to become the child’s legal guardian.
“Without thinking, I was like ‘I’ll take him,’” the teacher told HuffPost. “I’d rather know that I did something to help, even if my own life is on pause or I have to take my own steps slower… If I’d done nothing, that would kill me.”
The second teacher’s other students and their parents face similar fears, she says. ICE operations in front of a local H-E-B supermarket had left some students too nervous to go shopping. Rather than venture outside and exposing themselves or their parents to ICE, they’re making do with what they have to eat in the house.
Some parents worry that ICE agents will follow them if they take their kids to class.
“What we’re seeing is a lot of parents who used to pick up their children from school and now they’re sending them on the bus,” a third teacher told HuffPost. “The parents are afraid to come to the school.”
One Mexican-born parent, who has legal U.S. permanent residency but worries that her citizenship application might be endangered by Trump’s immigration crackdown, said ICE parked a car within blocks of her daughter’s elementary school last week.
“The kids were very scared,” the parent told HuffPost. “Why do they have to be in front of the school? A child shouldn’t have to be living through this.”
The anxiety at the schools extends to some of the teachers, according to Montserrat Garibay, the vice president of Education Austin, the teacher’s union.
Some Austin instructors are undocumented themselves, but they are allowed to work in the school system through an Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that shields undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors from deportation and provides a renewable two-year work authorization.
But Trump has offered mixed signals about whether he’ll extend that program, cancel it or allow it to lapse. At least two people with DACA permits were arrested during the wave of immigration arrests over the last two weeks, though one has been released.
“It’s an issue that’s bigger than just the students,” Garibay told HuffPost. “We have DACA-mented teachers that are really worried about their jobs,” he said, referring to the work permit program.
In theory, schools should not become a focal point of deportation fears. A 2011 policy restricts ICE from arresting people at sensitive places, including churches, funerals and schools. ICE’s brazen actions over the last weeks, however, leave some wondering whether the agency continues to follow it.
“To my knowledge, [ICE agents] haven’t entered a school,” Barbara Hines, the former head of the University of Texas at Austin Immigration Law Clinic, said at a conference last week. “But parking next to a school is the same thing.”
Students are still concerned, the first teacher said. As ICE swept through Austin, rounding up 51 people in the area, she was teaching lessons about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement for Black History Month, which began Feb. 1. When her students learn about the subject, they see parallels to their own lives, she said. They feel targeted for their brown skin like African-Americans are targeted for being black.
“They’ve asked questions like, ‘Why us?’” the teacher, who gave her elementary class the drawing assignment, told HuffPost. “And there’s a lot of talk of Donald Trump. Like, ‘Is he the one doing this? Why does he hate us?’”
Since politics are off limits, she answers in the most neutral way she can.
“I tell them that just because a person is a leader doesn’t mean that they’re right,” she said. “It’s up to us to make sure that we tell other people so that they know it’s also not right. I tell them even though you think you’re little, it doesn’t mean you can’t teach others.”