As President Trump declared a national emergency to build a wall on the southern border, Albany teacher Zeovadis Tavarez-Polanco said the real emergency is what’s happening to immigrant and refugee children who have been separated from their families.
“Children belong in classrooms, not cages,” said Tavarez-Polanco, one of hundreds of teachers who headed down to El Paso, Texas last weekend for a “Teach-In for Freedom” calling for an end to child detainments and family separations.
The event, organized by National Teacher of the Year Mandy Manning, was both a protest and an educational event — with teachers sharing lessons on the history of U.S. immigration and poignant letters written by immigrant students. Manning, who teaches newly arrived refugee and immigrant students in the state of Washington, said it’s crucial for educators to help people understand that the country’s shameful treatment of immigrant children is “a huge human rights violation.”
While the event was inspiring for Tavarez-Polanco, she also found it heartbreaking. Participants wore safety pins with children’s nametags and carried signs with pictures of children who were separated from their families entering the country in search of a better life. When asked if the children depicted were missing or still detained, Tavarez-Polanco said, “We just don’t know where they are. They haven’t been keeping track of who these kids are or who they belong to. Some were sent back. Some were released. Some are still being held.”
Tavarez-Polanco, whose trip was sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers with a recommendation from NYSUT, said she was surprised how beautiful it was in El Paso. “With everything you hear on the news, I thought it was going to be like a war zone,” she said. “Unlike what the fear-mongerers say, the city felt very safe and welcoming. Many of us walked across the border — it was sort of surreal how peaceful everything was.”
Tavarez-Polanco, who teaches fifth grade in a dual language program at Delaware Community School, said the event convinced her of the need to keep speaking out and contacting federal representatives. “This isn’t just on our President,” she said. “We need to demand three things from our congressional representatives: first, that they return all kids to their families; second, mental health services must be provided to help these kids with the irreparable damage being done. And third, we need legislation that will guarantee that putting kids in cages will NEVER happen again!”
As educators noted at the teach-in, this isn’t the first time in history that families have been separated. “We’ve done it to African-Americans, to Native Americans, to Japanese-Americans who were put in camps,” she said. “Not only does it violate international law, it violates humanity.”
A first-generation American herself, Tavarez-Polanco said she’s surprised more people aren’t speaking out on the issue. “I remember a big animal rights protest at the Convention Center because animals were being held in cages,” she said. “These are our children we’re talking about. They’re being mistreated and traumatized. Why aren’t people more outraged over this?”
Photo by El-Wise Noisette.