February 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Immigrant Students Worry as Librarian Lends Support | Opinion

I’m the librarian at a small alternative high school, where the student body is composed almost entirely of immigrants between 16 and 30 years of age. To enroll, the only requirement is that a student does not already have a high school diploma. We offer night classes along with day classes so that students who need to can work full-time as they earn credits to graduate.

LibrarySupport-I-am-ArlingtonEvery day I encounter students challenged by tasks that might sound simple to someone who has grown up in the United States. For instance, this past week I helped a student in her mid-twenties print a document from a laptop. Although she can work all kinds of magic on her cell phone, she does not have a computer at home; no desktop, laptop, tablet, or printer. Nor were there any at her previous school in Guatemala. Is it any surprise that she lacks basic tech skills? Our school offers a class specifically to address those starter skills, and it’s always full.

I assisted another student as he applied for a scholarship that will, hopefully, help him pay for community college next year. He asked me what “postmarked by 5 p.m. on February 5” meant, and then, where might he buy a stamp and an envelope, what to write on the envelope, and how to locate a post office. Yes, all of that is learned in elementary school—but he didn’t attend elementary school here.

Arlington students get career advice from a teacher.

Arlington students get career advice from a teacher.

Our students struggle with basic English, so the phrasing on job, benefits, college, scholarships, or citizenship applications often confuses them. We have a robust tutoring program run by an amazing coordinator who helps students with these applications, as well as with their school work. They sit at the tables in the library for hours at a time, working on assignments in government, English, biology, and math.

At the beginning of every semester, I conduct library orientation sessions. I explain the difference between fiction and nonfiction books, where each is located, and how long they can be checked out (three weeks). “How much does it cost?” someone always asks. I see looks of surprise when I explain it’s free to borrow books. Often, there was no library at all where they came from.

Recently, we had a guest speaker. He has only one leg. Yet this man, Emmanuel Yeboah, bicycled around Ghana, and later around the United States, to raise awareness about people with disabilities in Ghana. A picture book was written about him last year; we purchased 24 copies for the school. Every class read it.  Our school and five others chipped in to cover Yeboah’s travel from Africa. Our students, and those in the other schools, were amazed that a disabled man with one leg from a poor country could do so much to change laws and people’s perceptions. In class, we discussed ways that any one of them could bring about change in our community.

An Arlington student gives a presentation on what "home" means to him.

An Arlington student gives a presentation on what “home” means to him.

Although I work in a high school library, I keep a supply of picture books on one shelf. These are some of the most frequently checked out books. My students read the books to themselves, and, sometimes, to their children, who are also learning English. Often, students who are parents of elementary-aged children check out books on the topics their kids are studying, so they can help them with their homework.

The day after the presidential election was a quiet one; attendance was lower than usual. We saw worry on the faces of the students who did come to school. That Friday, we had a “town hall” meeting in the lunchroom. All students and staff were invited. We passed a ball of yarn around as we shared our fears. One student told us about her five-year old, who was born in the United States, and who asked what would happen if mommy had to go back to Honduras. Another student, one semester from graduating, asked if he should bother applying to colleges. Several of our students protected by DACA  (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, students whose parents brought them to the United States before they were 16 years old) asked if they would be deported. Many students, and staff, for that matter, cried. We didn’t know what to tell them, other than that they are entitled to an education and that, at our school, they are safe, and they are loved.

During the town hall meeting, the ball of yarn makes it way around the room.

During the town hall meeting, the ball of yarn makes it way around the room.

I do not know what changes our new secretary of education will bring to our schools, especially to policies and funding for immigrants. The recent rise in deportations has some of my students worried anew, and they are asking for advice from teachers, social workers, and legal representatives. I can only hope that in the years to come, I will still be here in my library, checking out free books to my students, helping them fill out applications, and showing them how to use the computers. Libraries are for learning—no matter where you come from.

Deah Hester is the librarian at Arlington Community High School in Arlington, VA.

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  1. Michal Barzyk says:

    What a thoughtful and informative article about real people with real struggles. It brought tears to my eyes that young people working so hard to get an education should have such stresses.

  2. Carol Cauthen says:

    The word “illegal” always get left off when discussing Trump’s immigration policy. Trump and Republicans are not against immigrants at all. Most of us are descendants of immigrants. Trump’s wife is an immigrant, and his first wife was as well. Trump’s own mother is from Scotland. If someone is in the country without going through the proper channels, then they are illegal. I do feel sorry for the children born here to illegal parents, but their parents put them in the position they find themselves in. Please stop spreading fake news by leaving off the word “illegal” when discussing immigration. Thank you.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Why, oh why, do so many deliberately conflate legal immigrants with illegal immigrants? It’s fake news!

    They are not the same. Legal immigrants have nothing to be concerned about with the new administration. They are appreciated, admired, and welcome to live here. Illegal immigrants should return to their countries of origin voluntarily. In France, England, Mexico, Canada, and a hundred other countries, illegal immigrants are deported quickly. Paris, Lyons, Toronto, Birmingham, and Guadalajara have not declared themselves “sanctuary cities,” because it would be seen as treasonous. Return to one’s nation of origin for those in a country illegally is the only way that a country can secure its borders and plan its own immigration policy. American citizen children of illegal immigrants can either go home with their parents and return if they choose when they are 18, or have their parents assign them legal guardianship with people in America legally.

    I cannot in good conscience teach my students that obeying the law is the right, just, and proper thing for all of us to do…except for people who have overstayed visas and crossed borders without permission. Who can?

    • As educators we are not LEGALLY allowed to ask our students if they are documented or not. All we can do is support them in their educational goals in either case.

    • There is nothing “fake” about this story. It’s about children and young adults who are desperately in need of the services that our schools and libraries provide. As Meg states, whether they are documented or not is not for us to ask, we still need to support them in their education.

  4. I am a colleague of Deah’s in the same school system – I am astounded that this article about her students has gotten side-tracked over the illegal vs. legal immigrants. What part of this is “fake news”? What is “fake” about this? What does “fake news” mean here?
    I have to disagree respectfully that legal immigrants “have nothing to be concerned about.” I wish that were true. “Legal” immigrants still face assumptions about their “status” based on race or where they live. The recent EO prevented “legals” from returning to the US from abroad without undue hardship.
    I have never been in a situation where I had to sneak into another country illegally. I hope I never have to… But if bombs are falling and my children are starving, who knows what I would do for them. Of course, there are exceptions. There are bad apples in every barrel – but let’s stop the blame game.
    Thank you, Deah, for the work that you do each day on behalf of your students. If I am ever in a situation where I am a newcomer in a foreign country, I hope to find someone like you to help me.

    • Well said Amy. I completely agree. Try walking in someone else’s shoes and you will see things differently. I can’t imagine what I would do if I were in their shoes. How can we sit back while parents are being grabbed by ICE in front of their children as they drop them off at school? Is this what we want from our Country? Thanks for sharing, Deah.

      • Thanks for sharing Deah, Amy and Meg. I too work at the same school district as Deah, and I am an immigrant. Every day I focus on the educational needs of the students in my care, and would never ask about their immigration status. On that point, I agree with Meg, but I must respectfully ask Meg To cite her source about her claim that ICE grabbed parents in front of the school. First, it is still against policy for ICE removal agents to go to schools and churches. If you believe this has occurred, report it. Second, how do you know that those ICE agents weren’t victim support? Or ICE investigators of human trafficking? ICE is an organization with many roles and divisions which enforces the laws of the land, not just immigration law. As librarians, it is imperative that we teach and model how to scrutinize, verify and cite information. Keep calm, check your sources and don’t feed the fear.

  5. Tess O'Brien says:

    Grandma was illegal. From Ireland. Which none of us knew until after she passed. So, let’s see, without my family here … the US would have lost: A soldier in WWII (apparently, a number of children of “illegal” immigrants serve in the US forces). Three teachers. A nun. A nurse. A pharmacist. A medical supply specialist. A musician. A social worker. An elder care assistant. A graphic designer. A stock broker. Two real estate agents. A computer network specialist who designs programs for store chains to keep credit card info safe. A paramedic firefighter. Clearly, my “illegal” family hasn’t contributed to this country at all. PS If you work with kids, you have compassion. If you don’t, you don’t belong in the business of supporting our young.

  6. If you support what the Trump administration is doing, then I cannot take you seriously when you talk about what is legal and what is not.

  7. Karen, we have been informed that ICE no longer respects the school/church safeguard and will be removing children from schools. I will explore that more but that is my understanding of the world we live in now.

  8. As the article that Amy posted stated, the long standing ICE policy to avoid sensitive locations for removals still stands. Report any information to the contrary. Rumors abound, which could hinder the efforts of other ICE divisions (e.g. like victim support and counter-acting human trafficking). As my students and I are increasingly learning, research for the truth in a post-truth world requires persistence and a healthy dose of skepticism. Librarians are needed now more than ever!

  9. Karen,

    First, it is still against policy for ICE removal agents to go to schools and churches. If you believe this has occurred, report it.

    I believe Meg was referring to Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, who was taken after dropping off one daughter at school, while on his way to drop off another daughter at another school. So ICE didn’t go into a school, but certainly it’s fair to say that a parent was “grabbed by ICE in front of their children as they drop[ped] them off at school.” Likewise you could cite the men who were taken as they came out of a hypothermia shelter in Alexandria. The shelter is run by a church, but it isn’t a church itself, and anyway ICE agents didn’t go inside. But both stories also make the larger point, which is…

    Second, how do you know that those ICE agents weren’t victim support? Or ICE investigators of human trafficking?

    …ICE agents, at the Trump administration’s direction, are acting to undermine public trust. It is the thing they are doing. Not trusting them is a perfectly reasonable, and blameless, response. I mean, I agree that’s a problem, but take it up with the administration. I’m sure as hell not giving ICE the benefit of the doubt, and I can’t advise anyone else to do so either.

  10. Sean,

    The fact is ICE do pick people up and return them. That’s the law. Report removal officers who approach sensitive areas. You cite 2 incidents, I hope these were reported.

    I never suggested giving anyone the benefit of the doubt. I said be sure of facts which is a perfectly reasonable request.

    I do know that the Center for Human Trafficking, which disseminates information about human trafficking between charities and associated organizations, relies on ICE agents to investigate. Let’s not jeopardize the thousands of victims of human smuggling by assuming that every ICE agent is a removal officer.

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