As elementary school teachers in South Williamsburg, we see the trauma that President Donald Trump’s policies inflict on immigrant communities on a daily basis. We are intimately familiar with the damage that separation from a parent can do to a child. We are also trained to put the needs of our children first, and on Father’s Day, that means speaking out against the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda. It means saying loud and clear that immigration policies that result in family separation― whether at the border or within the United States― are needless, shortsighted and cruel.
Right now, two of our students are experiencing a family separation that offers a glimpse into the everyday tragedy our broken immigration system creates. Cristian is 11, and his brother Daniel is 8. They are both good-natured, diligent students, easygoing and always smiling. Cristian loves math, and Daniel is a talented artist. Both are U.S. citizens.
Their father Benjamin had been living and working undocumented in the United States for the past twenty years. In March, he traveled to Mexico City to apply for permanent residency and was told he could not return to the U.S. He shared the news with his wife, María, moments after she left Daniel’s third-grade parent-teacher conference. She was shocked and heartbroken.
“Two of our students are experiencing a family separation that offers a glimpse into the everyday tragedy created by our broken immigration system.”
María is a U.S. citizen, and she has stage 4 breast cancer. Because of her illness, she can’t work, so Benjamin was the family’s primary breadwinner and Maria’s main caregiver. She undergoes regular chemotherapy treatments and blood transfusions in the afternoons, so he used to pick the children up from school.
But suddenly, he was gone.
As soon as our school heard the news, we shifted into gear; we made sure there was someone to take the boys home to East New York that day and found phone numbers for lawyers and elected officials. We reached out to New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office, which immediately offered to help. We were told there was little legal recourse beyond an application for a humanitarian visa ― which, according to one attorney, would have been granted under former President Barack Obama, but was less likely now.
Meanwhile, two parents of Daniel’s classmates collected donations, so that, at the very least, María would be able to pay her rent and put food on the table while undergoing chemotherapy. One of Daniel’s former teachers raised funds for the family to visit Benjamin in Mexico. As of this writing, the community has raised more than $43,042.
Thanks to this effort, the boys were able to visit their father in Mexico over spring break. It was the first time Daniel and Cristian had ever been to Mexico. Daniel said it was fun to see his dad, even though the food made his stomach hurt. He came back to school sunburned, the skin peeling off his nose.
“When children experience trauma like family separation, it alters their cognitive and emotional development, making it harder for them to focus, learn and grow.”
María now has enough money to pay her rent and care for her kids while she undergoes further treatments. She doesn’t need to worry about buying groceries while battling cancer alone, and she can even pay for childcare in case of emergency. Daniel and Cristian will be able to get new school uniforms, bring snack money to school and pay for field trips.
But they don’t have their father. He isn’t waiting to pick them up from school every afternoon, and he isn’t with them on Father’s Day. And they may never live with him again― as predicted, Benjamin’s humanitarian visa application was denied on June 6. He is forced to stay in Mexico, away from his sick wife and two sons, indefinitely.
When children experience trauma like family separation, it alters their cognitive and emotional development, making it harder for them to focus, learn, manage their emotions, socialize and grow into happy, productive adults. When family members disappear, it doubles the financial and emotional burden on the adults who remain, making an already traumatic experience all the more stressful. No matter how much support María gets from our school community, the separation from their father will impact Daniel and Cristian forever, and even more so as her illness worsens.
This is just one story, about one family and one community. Like our colleagues in schools across New York City ― and across the country ― we have other students who are living different versions of this nightmare. We, like so many other teachers, have students whose parents are facing deportation hearings and could be indefinitely detained and separated from their children. We serve even more children from families that fear encounters with law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“Take this one story and multiply it by the thousands, and you can start to see the devastation wrought on immigrant communities and on our entire nation.”
Take this one story and multiply it by the thousands, and you can start to see the devastation wrought on immigrant communities, and on our entire nation, by a politics of fear and exclusion. And then, remember that Daniel and Cristian’s story pales in comparison to the cruelty inflicted on the children who seek asylum from violence and poverty and are separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The immigration question is not just one of law or policy, it is a question of morality. Family separation is morally wrong. Targeting immigrant communities of color is morally wrong. Deporting people who have lived here for decades back to a life of poverty and violence is morally wrong. Denying a humanitarian visa to a father whose wife has stage 4 cancer is morally wrong.
Our students matter and our children matter. As teachers, we don’t care about our families’ status, we care about their humanity. Daniel and Cristian deserve to be with their father this Father’s Day, as do all the children across the country who have been separated from their parents. This is not what America is or should be. We can all do better for our children.
Liat Olenick and Abby Loomis are elementary school teachers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.