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AP photo, Haitian migrants at Mexico-U.S. border

AP photo, Haitian migrants at Mexico-U.S. border

November 19, 2021 | 0 comments

From the Border to the Classroom: AFT Supports Newly Arrived Migrants


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As immigration policy continues to make its messy way through the halls of Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court, many migrants themselves continue to suffer. Having fled life-threatening conditions in their home countries, they’re now enduring dangerous conditions in makeshift camps or temporary holding centers, waiting for asylum hearings or slogging through confusing paperwork that will determine whether they can stay in the United States.

From advocating for more humane policies and visiting the border to addressing migrant children’s needs in the classroom, AFT members are involved in trying to make this right.

The Big Picture

Most recently, public attention has been on migrants from Haiti. When photos and videos of atrocities at the border were published in September — with white border patrol officers on horses chasing Black people in Del Rio, Texas — many of the victims were from Haiti. Marie Etienne, a Haitian American nursing professor and member of United Faculty of Miami Dade College, traveled there to help.

Etienne, who is the president of the Haitian Alliance Nurses Association International, arrived with six HANA-I members to distribute hygiene products, assess migrant needs and provide translation. “It was a heartbreaking situation for all of us as Haitian immigrants to witness,” she says, remembering a man whose flip-flop had to be torn away, his foot encrusted from walking for months. The journey was brutal for many: Women told her they’d been raped, and their husbands had been forced to watch. Many were robbed and beaten; others saw fellow travelers die along the route.


AP photo, Haitian migrant at Mexico-U.S. border
AP photo, Haitian migrant at Mexico-U.S. border

“I was a migrant once,” says Etienne, who came to the United States at age 14, under much better circumstances. Still, she says, “It could have been me.”

Etienne’s group did what it could to help locate family members, communicate immediate needs and distribute donations — some of which came from UFMDC members — but their “№1 goal” was to “elevate the spirit of the people, be empathetic, show them some respect and show them that people do care.”

It was a welcome message, as many feel disproportionately targeted for deportation. They know that thousands of other Haitians have been sent home to a country still reeling from an earthquake, a presidential assassination and gang violence. They’re being deported without asylum hearings due to a Trump-era policy, Title 42, that continues to cite pandemic safety as a reason to waive due process.


Marie Etienne, bottom, with colleagues en route to the border.
Marie Etienne, bottom, with colleagues en route to the border.


“We need to advocate for human rights, for social justice, for fairness,” says Etienne. “These Haitian migrants must have their due process just like any other migrants. We have to treat each other with dignity and respect no matter where you come from.”

“Haitian migrants [have been] repeatedly targeted as disease carriers,” says Carl Lindskoog in an interview with Vox, calling this discrimination “not only of the foreign-born but especially of the nonwhite foreign-born.” Lindskoog, a history professor and a member of the Raritan Valley Community College Federation of Teachers, wrote Detain and Punish: Haitian Refugees and the Rise of the World’s Largest Immigration Detention System, and notes past exclusion of Haitians: in the 1970s because of suspected tuberculosis and in the 1980s and 1990s because of AIDS. “Haitians said all along that singling them out is discriminatory because they aren’t any more likely to be diseased than other people,” says Lindskoog. “It is racialized stigmatization.”

Racial justice advocates also show that Black migrants are more frequently mistreated: deported in larger numbers, more frequently held in solitary confinement at deportation facilities and required to pay higher bonds for their freedom.

“As someone of Haitian and Dominican ancestry, we should be speaking out on what’s happening at the border,” says J. Philippe Abraham, secretary-treasurer of New York State United Teachers and an AFT vice president. “Thousands of migrants from all corners of the world seek protection and asylum at the U.S. border every year. Black immigrants should not be treated any different.

“The United States has a moral and legal responsibility under international law to ensure the protection, safety and well-being of refugees. As an organization that represents those who teach and care for the next generation, we should be advocating to terminate Title 42.”

Bringing It Home

Families who do make it into the United States — by the tens of thousands — are settling in cities across the country, where educators are preparing to welcome them with as much care as possible. While not everyone has seen children from the recent influx of Haitians, AFT members who have worked with migrant populations for years describe families from Nigeria, the Congo, Chile, Ecuador, Cuba and all over Central America; others, from Syria, Somalia and Iraq, have been in schools for several years now. While the children’s experiences vary in detail, many share some sort of trauma — from the violence of war to the loss of leaving loved ones behind.

So along with English lessons, teachers must tune in to students’ social-emotional well-being, creating warm and welcoming classrooms and a sense of empathy among fellow students, learning to recognize signs that a child is struggling to adjust, and knowing when to tap social workers and counselors to help meet families’ needs.


Nelver Books
Nelver Brooks

Nelver Brooks, an English language learning teacher and member of AFT St. Louis, has worked with children who were born in refugee camps and have never had formal schooling, and others who left homes in places torn apart by war. She remembers one child who refused to return to the building after recess unless he could be first in line; at the refugee camp, if he was not first, he might not get any food. Other children have shared memories of their parents being shot, or have shown scars from their own injuries.

“We can’t even fathom something like that,” says Brooks. “But we can patiently explain that things are different here.”

Educators can do small things that make a big difference to these newcomers. Brooks suggests several in an AFT Voices blog post: “Fill baskets with items from their countries. Try wearing similar clothing, and post maps of the world with their pictures pinpointing where they’re from. Learn to say hello in their language.”

Brooks also suggests telling children: “You’re not taking away their language, you’re adding English to their repertoire. Value who they are. Ask them to teach you a word, and show them you can make mistakes, too. Ease their minds. This is a big leap for them.”

It’s helpful to remember that many students have not been to school before, even in their native countries. “They come with zero,” says Mayra Mora, a member of United Teachers of Dade, talking about her ELL students in Homestead, Fl. The children don’t know basics like how to sharpen a pencil or how to open a book and read, since it is in English, from left to right. They’re also emotionally fragile — one little girl burst into tears looking at photos from Día de los Muertos, a Mexican celebration of the ancestors. The girl was missing her grandmother, who stayed behind in Haiti.

Mora, whose school is just two miles from a migrant camp, says social-emotional learning is crucial for migrant children. “Not only do they have that education gap, they have a big emotional gap,” she says. “If we don’t address those needs first, we’re going to lose them.”

One solution is to continue to fight for the teachers and staff schools need. “Here in the Boston Public Schools, and in any city, really, caring for refugee and migrant children is a constant part of teaching,” says Joel Richards, a technology teacher and member of the Boston Teachers Union, in a recent post on AFT Voices. “To do our jobs well, we need translation services, mental health support and more teachers and staff.” BTU is pressing the district for more counselors and social workers. They want to hire more teachers of color so that children can see people who look like them at the front of the classroom. And they are advocating for ethnic studies as part of the curriculum, rather than as an add-on.

Mora says her district has provided the technology and resources she needs, but understaffing has become a problem. Brooks describes putting in extra hours because there are not enough teachers to help her students transition to mainstream classes. She also recommends professional development beyond the one or two training sessions typically offered by school districts.

Resources That Help

Working with myriad allies and community groups, the AFT works at every level of policymaking to improve immigration policy writ large, pressing for humane treatment at the border and advocating for a path to citizenship for migrants who stay. On-the-ground online resources include information and worksheets on immigrant rights, deportation plans and citizenship clinics, as well as a specific guide for helping immigrant and refugee children and Colorín Colorado’s guide for helping “unaccompanied children” — that is, children who enter the United States without their families. There are free webinars on trauma-informed education on Share My Lesson, and the AFT also works with affiliates to offer real-time coursework on student trauma, virtually and in person; to inquire about scheduling an event, email Chelsea Prax at [email protected].

There are also hundreds of class lessons, videos, handouts and more about immigrant experiences and history on Share My Lesson — from poetry to immigration legislation and news analysis — to expand students’ understanding about the migrant experience.

For more on advocacy for migrants, check out our friends at UndocuBlack Network and the Haitian Bridge Alliance.

This article was republished with permission from AFT Voices and was written by AFT Communications Specialist Virginia Myers.