Workshop prepares teachers to help and protect immigrant students

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When teachers meet to talk immigration, their stories can be wrenching:

Undocumented parents afraid to drop their kids off at school.  A soccer league visited by immigration agents one weekend, and players too fearful to turnout the following week. A sixth grader with ICE agents at her door, frantically texting her sixth-grade teacher. A student sick with worry because her day laborer dad is afraid to seek work, terrified that he could be snared in a raid.

Such were among the stories shared Wednesday at “Protecting Our Immigrant Students,” a workshop sponsored by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

With President Trump demanding a crackdown on illegal immigration, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatening to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities, the atmosphere is fraught.

“Our children come to school frightened and stressed,” PFT president Jerry Jordan told the 50 or so educators who came together after the end of the school day to hear a panel of lawyers and advocates talk about rights and responsibilities.

“How can I push my students to do their best when they are carrying on their shoulders the pain and the struggle of their families?” said Cesar Moreno Perez, associate director for human rights with the American Federation of Teachers, the PFT’s parent organization. “How can I ask that they get an ‘A’ on an exam, when their father was just detained last night?”

Some 65,000 undocumented students nationwide graduate from high school each year, he said. About 5.9 million children live in “mixed-status families” in which one or more members is undocumented.

Natasha Quiroga, of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, explained that the landmark 1982 case Plyler v. Doe entitles every child to a public education, regardless of immigration status.

Michael Churchill, of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, said the Philadelphia Bar Association is organizing lawyers to provide pro-bono assistance to families of immigrant students.

“There are ways for your families to find help. It’s not easy,” he said. “But teachers do much more than teach to the test. They really minister to the needs of their students.”

Moreno urged the teachers to be attuned to the warning signs of a student in distress, such as eating disorders or excessive crying for no reason.

“If they are no longer acting like themselves,” he said, “have a conversation.”

Ignacia Rodriguez, of the National Immigration Law Center, gave practical advice — how to distinguish a judicial warrant, which must be honored, from other forms of enforcement paperwork, which don’t have the same force of law.

Also present were City Councilwomen Helen Gym and Maria Quinones Sanchez, just back from a New York City symposium on how sanctuary cities can defend themselves against federal pressure.

“For these families, the feeling of being under attack is very real,” said Gym. “Other than themselves … the people they are going to trust the most are all of you. You’re their teachers. You’re their nurses and counselors. You see them every day. In their best situations. In their worst situations. At their most desperate and at their most joyful.”

April Marinell, who teaches English as a second language at William McKinley School in North Philadelphia, said in an interview after the workshop that her students who are not U.S. citizens are afraid.

“I want to be able to give them accurate information,” she said. “In that sense this was really helpful.”     

Staff writer Kristen Graham contributed to this article.

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