Educators overcome racism, anti-immigrant sentiment

Students at RCMA Wimauma Academy gather in front of the garden they helped plant.

Many students at RCMA Wimauma Academy struggle through the school day in fear.

Will their parents be home when they get there? Or will they immigration authorities round them up for deportation?

This is the reality many students face at a school dedicated to serving children of migrant farmworkers. Roughly 65 half percent of Wimauma residents are migrants. Many are undocumented. Life is already uncertain for their parents, who work long hours in the fields at unstable jobs with uncertain pay.

The Trump Administration’s decision to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program over six months created new uncertainty among immigrants around the country. The program helps provide a two-year work permit and temporary protection from deportation to young adults who arrived in the U.S. illegally as children. It helps them get jobs, pursue higher education and live without fear of deportation.

Education groups across the political spectrum — including some leading figures in the charter school movement — have spoken about the need to protect DACA students. Some have criticized the president. Others have taken a more measured approach, focusing on the need for legislative action. While the president called on Congress to replace the program before it phases out, federal lawmakers have yet to act.

Meanwhile, the number of raids on homes of undocumented immigrants has increased, the Sun Sentinel reported. The newspaper reported that, according to federal immigration authorities, 41,318 immigrants here illegally were arrested in the first few months of 2017. That represents a 38 percent increase.

With reports of rising anti-immigrant sentiment across the country, students and parents at RCMA Academy are concerned.

Juana Brown, director of charter schools for RCMA, said when she was driving to work recently she saw a truck in the area that had a bumper sticker that stated: “No amnesty for illegals.”

The sticker troubled her.

“There is no one that is illegal,” she said. “You can be documented or undocumented. It is a term of derision.”

Brown said Marcela Estevez, the director of student affairs for the academy, has been working with a group of parents who have lived for 15 years in a community where employers provide housing for workers.

“All of sudden, there is the insecurity that we no longer have the jobs we had for years, and as you lose your job, you lose your housing,” she said. “Our families are vulnerable because of language, immigration status. They don’t know their rights.”

The school has brought in attorneys to give parents up-to-date information on their rights, Brown said.

The anti-immigrant sentiment does not just affect parents and their families. It also affects educators.

A Mexican-American who grew up with a family of migrant farmworkers, Immokalee Community School principal Zulaika Quintero was harassed twice at a stoplight when someone told her she needed to go back to where she came from, yelling racial epithets.

The incidents deeply troubled her.

“It is upsetting for me especially, because I know I am not the only person this happens to,” she said. “It is hurtful and shameful. You start questioning, ‘Do I belong here?'”

But in the same measure, she said, the incidents strengthened her focus at school. She reminds students to embrace everyone and combat hatred.

“This world is meant to be for everyone to live in,” she said. “This is your home.”

All of this weighs on students in the classroom. It makes the strong results at RCMA schools all the more noteworthy. And, according to Brown, it shows how schools can help children beyond boosting short-term academic results.

“It is important for us to give them experiences that affirm their dignity and their ability to succeed,” she said.


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