Who Are The Immigrant Kids We Are Tormenting?

I wish everyone could have heard Oklahoma City Public School System Board member Gloria Torres’ heartfelt presentation to the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy’s Kids Count 2017 Forum describing the ordeals being dumped on immigrant children.

Teaching during the Great Recession, I’d had a glimpse of the brutality first unleashed by the Oklahoma law patterned after the toughest anti-immigration law in the nation. For instance, my student and his family were caught “Driving While Hispanic” and told they wouldn’t be turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents if they got on their knees and begged. They were then deported.

So, Ms. Torres’ tearful rendition of today’s ordeals faced by Hispanic OKCPS students prompted me to see what is happening with our youngest children in our predominantly Latino schools. I learned that soon after the 2016 election, fearful children came to school clinging to their parents. Bullying increased, and attendance went down. When ICE made an arrest at 8:15 a.m., a block from a school I visited, parents about to drop their kids off at the front door had to just keep on driving.

The immigrants’ stories are as varied as the rest of America. Small business people, perhaps after fleeing kidnapping and the drug wars on the border, often try to follow the rules, but find themselves in administrative “Catch 22s.” And when a self-made business person goes back to Mexico to reapply for entry, which is presumably a two-week process, and is stuck for months, what happens to his employees?

Moreover, when parents are deported, what happens to their children? Some land in foster care. And, obstacles thrown in the way of children’s education get bigger. For instance, it’s challenging enough to offer a new start when a 4th-grader sees her mom and other family members murdered, with two being beheaded. In this case, her school lets her call home daily to be reassured that her surviving family members are still alive.

I’d hope everyone would take the time to listen to our new neighbors. And everyone should read Race for Results, the 2017 Kids Count policy report which was released locally by the OICA. This year’s analysis focused on children in immigrant families. Specifically, it shined a light on “crimmigration,” the intersection of criminal and immigration law.

Nearly 800,000 young people who work and attend school under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program have been given a reprieve from immigration enforcement. But the fate of DACA youths, also known as “Dreamers,” is “hanging in the balance.” Even before Donald Trump took office, Dreamers faced heart-wrenching challenges. Race for Results notes:

It is estimated that between 2008 and 2013 as many as 500,000 children were separated from parents through detention and deportation, causing kids to suffer psychological trauma, instability and material hardship after the family’s breadwinner was no longer in the household.

So, who are these kids who we are forcing to suffer so much?

One in four children (24 percent) in the United States is growing up in an immigrant family. Eighty percent of children in immigrant families are growing up with two parents, which is nearly 1/4th more than children in U.S.-born families. Eighty-eight percent of children in immigrant families are citizens. Ninety-five percent of children in immigrant families live with parents who have been in the country for more than five years, and most have parents who have been in the United States for 20 years or more.

The majority (61 percent) of children in immigrant families are from Latin America and, since 2014, Latino children have shown the most improvement on the Kids Count eight indicators of “Opportunity Pathways.”

So, what’s the problem?

Five million children live with parents who are undocumented. That means that almost 28 percent of immigrant kids live in families threatened by ICE.

In Oklahoma, a higher percentage of our immigrant kids are Latino, but our underfunded schools are not doing nearly as well in serving them as the rest of the nation. We rank 45th in outcomes for Latino students. And that brings us back to our version of this unnecessary tragedy.

The OKCPS student population was dwindling and the district would have collapsed had it not been for Hispanic immigration. Our schools don’t come close to offering enough English Language Learner supports but Latino students helped the poor school system survive budgetary crises. Latinos have reinvigorated our work ethic and, as their lower disciplinary rate indicates, they have energized our schools.

The Oklahoma City Hispanic community remains fearful but it is helping schools and endangered families adjust to the threat to Dreamers and their families. They teach educators, parents, and children to “make a plan” – to know what concrete steps to take if they return home and their loved ones are gone. And in an infinitely less emotional way, all Americans should confront these painful realities, as well as confront the Kids Count’s facts, and make a plan for ending the suffering.

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