This past Tuesday night (February 25, 2020), I went to see a live recording of the Kojo Nnamdi show at the Columbia Heights Educational Campus in Washington DC where I live. This show aired today, Thursday February 27, on WAMU 88.5, the NPR station in DC. For those who missed it, listen here, and read my summary below!
This show was part of their “Youth Dialogue Series” and this particular episode was about the impact of immigration policies on students and families in DC. The panelists included:
Jackie Reyes-Yanes, Director, Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs
Karl Racine, Attorney General, District of Columbia
Paula Fitzgerald, Executive Director, Ayuda
Maritza Mundo-Barillas, Georgetown University Student (graduate of DCPS High School)
Mizraim Belman-Guerrero, Georgetown University Student (graduate of DCPS High School)
Claudia Quiñones, Trinity Washington University Student (graduate of DCPS High School)
As I suspected, many of the challenges they discussed are very similar to what immigrant students and families across the country are facing. These challenges include:
Challenges related to status: All of the youth panelists grew up undocumented. One shared, “When I was growing up, I was so ashamed of being undocumented. You have to blend in! Don’t bring any attention to yourself.” Another panelist shared that even when she received DACA, some things were much easier, but she instantly became the head of the household. She had to start working, support her family, put all the utilities in her name, complete all the school-related paperwork for her younger siblings, and so on. Paula Fitzgerald, the director of Ayuda, talked about how important it is for youth to get a full legal consultation. In some cases, youth may be eligible for a U visa (victim of crime), T visa (victim of trafficking), or Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). She also clarified that one can have DACA and ALSO apply for another form of relief to get access to long-term status.
Changes to immigration policies: Paula Fitzgerald also spoke about the many changes that the Trump administration has brought about in terms of immigration. Some policies affect all immigrants, but others have a disparate impact on Central Americans (the major immigrant population in DC). For example, rescinding DACA (still waiting to hear back from the Supreme Court), changes to asylum law, the Migration Protection Protocols (“remain in Mexico” program), winding down of Temporary Protected Status, and the revised public charge, which went into effect this week on February 24.
Concerns for family members: One of the panelists talked about how her brother was detained by ICE. He was going to work and ICE was waiting for him outside of his apartment. They hadn’t missed any court dates since they came to the U.S., but he was detained for months. At one point, a police officer from the Latino Liaison Unit spoke up and made sure everyone is aware that the Metropolitan Police Department has nothing to do with immigration.
Traumatic journeys: Mizraim courageously shared a bit about the journey he and his family made to the U.S. when he was four years old. He remembers the coyote and trying to cross the Rio Grande river without knowing how to swim and reunifying with his father later on in Austin, Texas.
Culture shock / Acculturation: Claudia came from Bolivia and talked about how she needed to adapt to the mostly Salvadoran population in DC. So many of the Spanish words used were different as well as the culture.
Difficulty accessing scholarships: Claudia talked about how she finally got DACA two months before she graduated from high school, but by that point, she had already been rejected from many schools and financial aid opportunities. For the last seven years, she has been working to pay for school. At one point she stopped going for two years because she couldn’t afford it, but then she discovered Trinity college and was granted a Dreamers Scholarship. Maritza talked about how she wasn’t eligible for DACA and so her options were even more limited. For this reason, she is extra appreciative of the financial assistance Georgetown has provided her with.
Language barriers: One of the youth in the audience asked a question about how to make sure that immigrants who don’t speak English get what they need. The Attorney General talked about how it’s important for information to be communicated in the language of DC residents. The Executive Director of Ayuda, Paula Fitzgerald, chimed in to say that they maintain an interpreter bank that other agencies can access.
Discrimination: A few of the youth in the audience talked about their experiences with discrimination, both inside and outside of school. The Attorney General talked about civil rights, the right to be treated fairly, and the work that his office can do in collaboration with schools.
Safety / Security: One student said that he has only been in the U.S. (in DC) for 8 months and has already been the victim of 3 assaults. He has called the police each time, but wanted to know more about what can be done to improve safety and security. The police officer present talked about School Resource Officers who work inside the schools and as far as outside of school, he said that the police need more youth who are willing to collaborate with them to locate the criminals.
These amazing youth also displayed many strengths and much resilience:
Solidarity: Many of the youth panelists discussed how they support each other. Maritza talked about how she’s Salvadoran and when she arrived, she was comforted in meeting so many other Salvadorans who all had similar challenges. She talked about how they helped each other learn English and encouraged each other when things got difficult. She said “The world reminds us that we can’t do certain things, but we remind each other that we can do it.”
Organizing / Advocacy: Some of the panelists spoke about how important it is for undocumented youth to connect with other undocumented youth, so they don’t feel so alone. Mizraim said “It’s a very isolating experience if you don’t know anyone else going through this.” This led to him getting involved with activism when he was 15. Similarly, Claudia started organizing with United We Dream to let other young people know that "it’s okay to be undocumented" and to work on passing local and federal laws. Ultimately, she said, it’s about helping youth learn to love themselves.
There were a couple of educators in the audience who chimed in with their perspective on working with immigrant students and families. One teacher talked about the importance of educating the whole child and yet, immigrant students and families typically have less access to food, health care, and so on. He shared that his immigrant students are just trying to learn, but they come to school with all this baggage. Sometimes if he asks them why they didn’t do their homework, and it’s because they had to go to immigration court. Or sometimes they stop coming altogether because of fear. He said “My role as an educator is to help them learn, but it’s more than that. I have to provide the conditions for them to learn, but we’re not doing that in this country.”
Another teacher spoke about the socioemotional needs of immigrant students. For example, many are reunifying with family members who they haven't seen for years. This teacher stated that she plays a role in guiding the students and families as they rebuild their relationships. This teacher continued on about the ongoing fear many immigrant students have and how that makes it hard for them to be present in the classroom. She tries to inform them of their rights and works hard to build relationships with their families.