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October 1, 1997

Mi Casa Es Su Casa

Building trust in border communities between immigrant families and schools can start with just one person or involve an entire school.
The landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling of Plyler v. Doe in 1982 ended years of controversy by stating that "the state has an obligation to educate the children of undocumented immigrants" (First 1988). As a result, undocumented children across the country have a right and obligation to attend public schools through grade 12.
But even with this law, children of immigrant families face severe threats that affect them in and out of school. For thousands of families—documented and undocumented—who live on the 2,000-mile border between the United States and Mexico, immigration searches and deportation of family members, in addition to poverty, exploitation, and discrimination, are just a few of the daily fears they live with. Through our site visits, interviews, and research, we documented efforts to build trust between the school system and immigrant families that can make the educational setting a truly safe haven for children.

The Social Worker as Advocate

Lina Gómez is a case manager for Title I—a federal program authorized under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that provides financial assistance to underachieving and low-income students. Gómez, who works in a small city on the southwest border, is the only Title I social worker for her school district—an unusual example of fund use. The district enrolls 21,933 students—61 percent Hispanic. During her two years of work, she has helped many families—most of them recently arrived immigrants from Mexico—searching for a better life. Although their family circumstances vary, they share one wish: a strong desire to stay in the United States despite many obstacles that include poverty, a precarious legal status, high mobility, inability to communicate in English, and a lack of knowledge and understanding about the school system.
Gómez is one of the few school employees these families trust and call for assistance—and who understands the educational, legal, and social systems. Her daily work puts her in highly complex situations where families are victims of systems and bureaucracies that can be impersonal, rigid, and merciless. Gómez faced this situation one morning:
"Ms. Lina, Ms. Lina, they're here!" cried 9-year-old Andrés over the phone to Gómez. "They're taking my mom, Ms. Lina!" (She had given her telephone number to him earlier in case he ever needed help.) Officers from the Immigration and Naturalization Service arrived at Andrés's home looking for his undocumented mother. After finding her, they handcuffed and escorted her into their vehicle. Later that day, officials deported her to Mexico while her three children, including a 4- and 6-year-old, stayed behind crying frantically—not sure whether they would see their mother again.
Although Gómez immediately drove to the boy's home after the call, she arrived too late. The local police had taken the children into custody and had placed them in foster care that same day. In this circumstance, Gómez was unable to advocate for the children during those critical moments when they were separated from everyone they knew and desperately needed comfort and reassurance.
In a few days, the mother slipped back across the border in search of her children and the only life that promised a better future for them. At once, she began the arduous process of regaining custody. Their story is still unfolding as they struggle with poverty and the fear of another visit by the migra—Border Patrol agents, a division of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. After every setback, Andrés's mother becomes even more determined that her children receive the best possible education and future.
Because immigrant parents often eke out a living at menial and below-minimum-wage jobs as maids, dishwashers, gardeners, and seasonal workers, they are unable to provide even the most basic needs for their families. As a result, Gómez spends much of her time searching for and connecting them to social agencies that can offer help with food, rent, clothing, and health care. She also seeks out private and church-related organizations that serve undocumented people, since most government-funded agencies require a Social Security number or proof of residency for services.
  • obtaining clothes and food for the parents and children;
  • informing parents of their legal rights in and out of school;
  • finding affordable and safe housing for the families;
  • reviewing rental and employment contracts and other official documents;
  • making referrals to Head Start and other programs;
  • assisting with employment searches for parents; and
  • offering support to parents and children during arrest and deportation processes, such as making sure the children left behind have proper care.
As a highly committed social worker, Gómez provides the advocacy and care that are critical in determining whether these students and their families will survive and, eventually, succeed in what they perceive as a foreign, usually uninviting, and even hostile culture. Contact with one trusting person can be critical; Gómez is the strong and consistent link with the community, fostering an integrated, safe, and nurturing learning environment for documented and undocumented immigrant students and their families.

Schools Building Trust

Saguaro School has an enrollment of 502 children. This school is a "gateway school" because it is within walking distance of Mexico. Behind the playground is a chain-link fence that serves to divide one country from the other. From the playground, you can see a Border Patrol jeep with an officer continuously peering down on the school grounds through binoculars. At Saguaro, the principal says that it is difficult to determine who in her student body is documented and who is not; in addition, she feels it is not important. She believes that a school should educate children who are residing in the United States, regardless of citizenship status. Her philosophy concurs with the Plyler ruling that upholds children's rights to the same free and public education as U.S. citizens or legal residents—prohibiting any inquiry by school personnel about citizenship status.
As a result of the Plyler ruling, public schools may not deny admission to a student during initial enrollment or at any other time on the basis of undocumented status . . . engage in any practices to "chill" the right of access to school . . . require Social Security numbers from all students, as this may expose undocumented status . . . (National Coalition of Advocates for Students 1996).
Not all states support the idea. In 1994, California voters approved Proposition 187, a ballot initiative denying public education, school services, and health care to all immigrants who are not citizens, legal permanent residents, or legal temporary visitors. Most legal experts agree that the proposition will be struck down in the courts (Shuck 1995).
Even in communities outside of California, misinformation continues to filter through, causing panic. To allay fears brought on by the newly revised immigration laws, Saguaro teachers and administrators talk to parents as much as possible on a one-to-one basis, building trust and confidence in the safety of the school. They explain that such changes in the law may have an impact on public health and welfare benefits but do not extend to basic public education.
In spite of this, a climate of uncertainty persists for both parents and children. Even the common school forms sent home become an object of suspicion. For example, a majority of parents refuse to fill out forms requesting emergency phone numbers. As a result, school officials must thoroughly explain to parents all school requests for information. Children must also understand what is being requested and why.
On the border, the relationship that teachers have with students and their families is affected by daily experiences. Family members constantly worry about deportation of some or all members of their family. For example, during a special education placement meeting for 6-year-old José, the committee learned that his mother, Terésa Carbajal, is terrified that she will be deported. Carbajal, who has no transportation, sees immigration officers stopping people every day as she walks to and from her job.
Families in border communities, especially poor Latino neighborhoods, share a common judgment: If you look Hispanic, then Border Patrol or immigration officers may stop and ask you to show documentation proving U.S. citizenship or other legal status. As a special report on border education indicated, "Discrimination isn't limited to illegal immigrants; rather it extends to those who immigrate legally, bringing their talents and professional expertise with them" (SEDLETTER 1993).
Because Carbajal is undocumented, she fears deportation and abandoning her four children, who are all U.S. citizens. Her overriding sense of trepidation makes her think that it will be better to take three of her four children who do not require special education services back to Mexico. They will have to readjust to a new life and education that will be difficult for them. This means that at an early age, José will be separated from his family to remain in the U.S. school—following a suggestion made by his teacher—so that José can continue to receive special education services that are not available in Mexico. With his mother's full consent and the teacher's help, José and his family are now making arrangements for a church member to assume guardianship over him.

Final Reflections

  • Educate both documented and undocumented families on their rights to an education and their legal protection from any type of inquiry about their citizenship status.
  • Institutionalize social workers and other community officials within every school district to provide families with legal advocacy and linkages to the community.
  • Affirm to immigration officers and other legal officials the obligation of the schools to educate all children, regardless of citizenship status.
  • Create awareness of the complex border school culture among policymakers, administrators, and other educators.
  • Advocate for community, state, and federal support for programs and personnel to meet the needs of immigrant children.
  • Care for the families and nurture them by listening, monitoring extraordinary circumstances, providing personal communication, offering after-school and weekend programs for parents and children, and encouraging parents to become school partners.
Only one safe haven for immigrant families exists when all else looks threatening—the school. Why then must schools educate undocumented immigrant children? The rationale is based on moral implications, guaranteed legal rights, and economic ramifications. First, not doing so penalizes children for the actions their parents took in bringing them to the United States in search of a better life. Second, the Plyler ruling offers the legal basis to educate all children living in the United States. Third, not educating undocumented children inevitably harms them because they can eventually obtain legal status in this country. Lack of education permanently locks them into the lowest socioeconomic class. (Shuck 1995).
Given these arguments, schools must redefine how they work with undocumented immigrant families to prepare them to lead productive lives in this country. Only by building trust can we accomplish these goals.

First, J.M. (November 1988). "Immigrant Students in U.S. Public Schools: Challenges with Solutions." Phi Delta Kappan 70, 3: 205-210.

National Coalition of Advocates for Students. (September 1996). "School Opening Alert." Boston, Mass.: Author.

Schuck, P.H. (Spring 1995). "The Meaning of 187: Facing Up to Illegal Immigration." The American Prospect 21: 85-92.

SEDLETTER Special Report: Border Issues in Education, Part I. (1993). Austin, Tex.: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.

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