Ten years ago, I was fresh out of graduate school and into my first job as an early childhood special education teacher in New York City. I worked for an early childhood center that was a part of a larger non-profit organization – one that serves as a refuge for impoverished families in East Harlem and the South Bronx. The students I taught were ones who lived in poverty, had serious developmental and medical disabilities, or were homeless. They were largely from recent immigrant families, many undocumented, and the program supported these families by providing English Language Learner classes, assistance with earning citizenship, parenting support groups, as well as immigration workshops to help them access safe and free immigration and legal services.
I was 23 and a daughter of Indian immigrants. I had sat with the immigrant experience for a long time. I had wrestled with feeling in between two worlds, gently tracing the proverbial line between my world and my parents’ world, wondering deeply where I fit in. I thought I would understand my students, be taken back to that place of feeling lost and out of place in preschool and kindergarten, and be able to provide arms for these kids to fall into. And, I did.
But, I couldn’t have predicted how much these students and their families would give me in return. As I got to know these kids and their families, my perspective of their plight greatly changed. I learned their stories and their cultures. I ate the food they so lovingly made in their humble homes and brought to me in thanks. My heart swelled each morning as their children ran excitedly into my arms. They patiently encouraged my broken Spanish, just as I gently coaxed their English. Before I knew them, I thought I would understand. But what I could never have known without knowing them is the vast difference in their immigrant experience and the one of my family’s – where my family had education and access to pursue a legal journey into America in search of a greater dream, these families had very little beyond the heat of desperation against their backs and the steadfast, gutting commitment to their children to provide a life deserving of those little, beautiful souls.
And so, before I became a parent, I couldn’t have understood. I couldn’t have understood why they’d leave everything behind in order to come to a country where they were largely unwelcome. I couldn’t have understood the fear of sending your kids to school, not knowing what would happen through the course of the day. I couldn’t envision the strength it would take them to trust me, a teacher, to provide and protect their most precious gifts – their children. I couldn’t imagine the fear sitting in their gut when it came to possible legal consequences.
Now, after having my own kids, I understand.
I look back to those days in that classroom with the first little loves of my life, and I recognize something I initially glossed over. There was a look in those parents’ eyes as they dropped off their children, the same look in their eyes as they picked them back up and gripped my hand tightly in thanks – it was one of intense vulnerability and deep gratitude for giving their children a safety net in the midst of unpredictability. Their eyes would well up and I never really knew why until now. We were giving them the home they so desperately came to seek.
It was in that classroom that I learned how to love and care for and teach little children. And though I didn’t know it then, it was in that classroom that I learned how to be a parent who fights for children other than my own.
We are fighting for the safety and just treatment of immigrant children and their families, and this is how you can, too:
1. Understand what is happening
A little over a year ago, parent/child border separation came to light in the United States. After the Trump administration issued a zero-tolerance policy for illegal entry into the United States, children began being separated from their parents at the border of the U.S. and Mexico.
Children separated from their parents are going without basic human necessities and safe places to sleep. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website, last month 144,278 migrants were held – of those, 11,507 were unaccompanied children.
Now, over a year later, it is still a pressing issue, and the treatment and quality of life of children is in question because of how the government is handling the issue. A few weeks ago, New York Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez said in an Instagram Live: “The United States is running concentration camps at our Southern border, and that is exactly what they are.” We also learned that the administration plans on detaining more migrants at a military base that was a former Japanese internment camp during World War II.
A few months ago, Trump passed an executive order said to “keep families together while protecting the border.” What he didn’t say is that though families would largely be kept together, they would now be held indefinitely in detainment centers – some of which are for-profit and littered with abuse and exploitation.
Last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) executed a massive raid in Mississippi arresting and detained 680 people – this took place on the first day of school, leaving the children of those detained locked out of their homes and without parents. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba called the ICE sting “a gross display of humanity” to WJTV. Local businesses and organizations responded quickly to assist the children impacted by the massive raid, but the emotional damage and trauma done to these children is sure to last.
2. Provide, if you are local
If you are in Mississippi, the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services is asking for all citizens’ assistance in finding any children left without guardians after the ICE raids. All tips should be directed to 1-800-222-8000, as they have emergency foster placements on hand to provide these children care and support.
The Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance is collecting donations of food (canned beans, nut butters, canned fruit and vegetables, soups, rice, etc.) and hygiene products (shampoo, conditioner, toilet paper, underwear, socks, etc.), which can be dropped off at 4436 N State St Suite A-1, Jackson, MS 39206. The non-profit is also seeking monetary donations via GoFundMe.
Nayely Perez-Huerta with the Southeast Immigrant Rights Network (SEIRN) is seeking volunteer translators. She can be reached at [email protected].
Many local businesses have been providing food and shelter for children left without guardians, and supporting them in return would be a smart use of your dollars.
When it comes to this sort of issue – the health, safety, and dignity of innocent young children being held by our government – it’s not a question of party politics or immigration policy. It’s a question of morality.
3. Provide, if you are not local
As parents, hearing accounts of these children being detained at the border without access to beds or basic hygiene is gutting – especially after knowing that these children are kept there in unsanitary and unsafe conditions without any parent or guardian around to care for them.
Recently, we read about a U.S. attorney arguing in court that the government should not be required to provide migrant children detained in Border Patrol facilities toothbrushes, soap, showers, or a safe sleeping environment. This bleak image is burned on to many of our brains, consuming our thoughts, and creating pits in our stomachs at the very thought: what if this was our kids? As the mother of two boys with sweet brown skin, I feel this immensely.
A network of community organizations providing legal services, including ACLU Mississippi, El Pueblo Mississippi, and MacArthur Justice Center have banded together to provide an immediate response. Your donation will help support their fight for justice.
The Mississippi Center for Justice is looking for people to provide legal assistance to the hundreds of immigrants impacted by the ICE raids. You can also donate to their fundraiser on Facebook and you can fill out this Google form if you are licensed attorney interested in helping out.
The Lutheran Services Carolinas provides Transitional Foster Care for Unaccompanied Children and has an Amazon Wish List for needed supplies. You can also volunteer with them as a foster parent or classroom volunteer, if you are local.
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has been a champion for migrants and refugees from around the globe. LIRS works with the U.S. government and network partners to place these children in loving homes with licensed foster parents who are trained to provide care for migrant youth. You can volunteer as a foster parent or to welcome refugees.
4. Call your representatives – and then call them again
There’s no deep internal satisfaction from making a phone call, but it’s still vital that we do so. Applying political pressure is one of the greatest powers we have as citizens, as lawmakers are bound — at least in part — to their constituents.
There are a few immigration bills on the table right now, but many of them don’t provide families adequate support as they navigate the asylum process. The Keep Families Together Act is one that actually would prevent families from being separated unless there was evidence of abuse or neglect.
So, we need to call our representatives and tell them to back bills that fulfill our moral requirements and support the humane treatment of immigrant families in our country.
To find your representatives, you can use the House or Senate websites and search using your zip code. You can also use any of these awesome third-party websites that make finding your representatives easy: Call My Congress, Contact in Congress, or Who is My Representative?
5 Calls finds your representatives for you based on your location and also gives you scripts as a base for your phone calls based on the cause you feel strongly about. Their app is the one I use to make my own calls.
If you’re at a loss of what to say, using a base script is super helpful. Try one along the lines of this:
“My name is (your name) and I’m a constituent in (the name of your town or city). Please work with lawmakers on both sides to immediately correct the grave injustices facing immigrant families in this country. I urge you to adequately fund detention facilities, set appropriate standards of care, end all family separation, and make sure immigration courts are properly funded to ensure asylum applications to be swiftly processed. You are not doing enough to help these suffering children.”
Or, if you’re a woman of few spoken words (like me), try this:
“Hi, my name is (your name) and my zip code is (your zip). Do not use my taxpayer money to provide any more funding for DHS.”
According to the ACLU, the Department of Homeland Security is the administration’s key tool to terrorize immigrant families via ICE and CPB. Trump is planning an unprecedented budget increase to DHS, so now is your chance to use your voice and vote.
If you’re leaving a voicemail, be sure to leave your entire street address so your call will be tallied.
And, call every single day.
We need to recognize that many mothers all over the world hold a weight from which we are free. We need to commit to learn from them and stand with them.
5. Support causes working on the ground
Many amazing organizations are working hard to put an end to this terrible situation. Which one you choose to support is up to you – but here are a few of the many programs that are doing reputable and important work. All of these groups are fighting for the lives and improved conditions of detained immigrants. They are providing legal services, helping reunite families, fighting the policies that began family separation, and supporting children who are left alone or returned to their home country due to these horrendous immigration policies.
The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights protects and advances the rights and best interests of immigrant children according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and state and federal law. The Young Center’s goal is to change the immigration system so that children in immigration proceedings are recognized as children, and best interests are made a part of the decision making process.
Al Otro Lado is a bi-national, direct legal services organization serving indigent deportees, migrants, and refugees in Tijuana, Mexico. The bulk of their services are immigration-related and they also coordinate with attorneys and non-legal professionals in a range of areas such as family law, labor law, criminal law (particularly post-conviction relief), and employment law.
Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project provides free legal and social services to detained adults and unaccompanied children facing immigration removal proceedings in Arizona. The vision of the Florence Project is to ensure that all immigrants facing removal have access to counsel, understand their rights under the law, and are treated fairly and humanely.
The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) is a Texas nonprofit that helps immigrant children, migrant families, and refugees. The group has more than 100 attorneys, legal assistants, and support staff.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been fighting the administration’s family separation policies and advocating for immigrants since separations began.
Families Belong Together is a group effort that “includes nearly 250 organizations representing Americans from all backgrounds who have joined together to fight family separation and promote dignity, unity, and compassion for all children and families.”
Kids In Need of Defense provides legal services to children and “reintegration support for children returning alone from the U.S. to their home countries.”
Immigrant Families Together is an all-volunteer group that helps asylum seekers with bonds, works to reunite migrant parents with their children, and helps families get established once they’ve been released.
South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) is a joint project of the American Bar Association, the State Bar of Texas, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association. ProBAR “is a national effort to provide pro bono legal services to asylum seekers detained in South Texas by the United States government.”
6. Use your voice
You know what’s better than you calling your representatives every day and putting your proverbial foot down on this atrocious injustice? Getting all of your friends and family and neighbors and acquaintances and strangers that you see at Target to do the same.
It used to be that we didn’t want to dabble in politics – “I’m not very political,” I’ve heard countless times from friends. But not being political is just another way to say that we don’t really care about the things that may not affect us directly.
I do care, and I know you do too. So, it’s time to get a little uncomfortable, to resist the outward pressure to keep silent, and to stand for something.
Tell your friends you’re talking about this, tell them you’re calling your representatives, and ask them to do the same. If they’ve never called a government representative before, share what you know about scripts and apps that help you do so – help them find their political voice.
When we say we’re all in this motherhood thing together, let’s remember that there are mothers around the world without access, without a voice, without the privilege that is afforded to us just by being born in this country – we need to speak for them too.
7. Check yourself
As humans, we’re all carrying layers of complexity and mixed feelings about politics, policies, and the human condition. You might not agree with my perspective on border control and immigration; I might not agree with yours.
But, when it comes to this sort of issue – the health, safety, and dignity of innocent young children being held by our government – it’s not a question of party politics or immigration policy. It’s a question of morality.
This means that sometimes, as parents, we need to take the time to dig deep and unveil longstanding prejudices and deeply-rooted stereotypes that could make their way into our kids. It means we have to recognize our privilege — our white privilege, our feminist privilege, our economic privilege, our education privilege, our religious privilege, our privilege in never having to deal with documentation, colonialism, or foreign language or cultural fluency.
We need to make ourselves aware and learn how to translate those privileges into support for people whose struggles we will never entirely understand, but from which we are safely sheltered.
We need to recognize that we have something, many things, to learn. We need to recognize that we don’t know it all. We need to recognize that our pain, our grief, our worries are different from others’ – not less than, but different. We need to recognize the intersectionality involved in racism and feminism and how you can’t stand for one thing without standing for the other.
We need to recognize that many mothers all over the world hold a weight from which we are free.
We need to commit to learn from them and stand with them.
A version of this story first appeared on June 28, 2019. Updates have been made to include the latest information on the government’s immigration proceedings, recent ICE raids, and to list additional organizations working to support justice towards and humane treatment of immigrants.