For Zeovadis Tavarez-Polanco, a fifth-grade bilingual teacher in Albany, speaking out for refugee and immigrant children is a human rights issue — not a political one.
Tavarez-Polanco, a member of Albany Public School TA, will be joining teachers from across the country this weekend for a "Teach-In for Freedom" in El Paso. The Teachers Against Child Detention group’s aim is to draw attention to the plight of thousands of migrant children being held in detention by the U.S. government and to call for their release.
“The emotional and mental damage for these children is irreparable. It’s nothing short of child abuse,” Tavarez-Polanco said. “They’re being mistreated and traumatized and they did absolutely nothing wrong to deserve this. It’s criminal.”
Teachers Against Child Detention is an alliance of teachers and other advocates led by Mandy Manning, the National Teacher of the Year, who teaches newly arrived refugee and immigrant students in Washington state.
The teach-in will feature 10-minute mini lessons and talks by educators from every state and from Juarez, Mexico. Participants will learn about history of immigration to the U.S.; how to teach about immigration to students and communities; and the ill effects of detention on children and families. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten will also speak at the protest.
The Sunday event will start at 9 a.m. El Paso time and runs until 7 p.m. at San Jacinto Plaza, which is only a few miles from the border. It will be broadcast live online.
TACD is calling for President Trump and the U.S. Congress to immediately and responsibly release all immigrant children held in federal custody for more than 20 days in violation of the Flores consent decree and close all detention centers housing immigrant children. TACD’s goals are to help bring an end to the child detention centers, the separation of families and changing the conversation around immigration in the U.S.
The Trump administration began enforcing a “zero- tolerance” immigration policy earlier last year, separating migrant children from their parents when they tried to cross the U.S.-Mexico border and placing thousands of children in federal detention centers. The administration reversed the policy in June after public outcry and a federal judge ordered all separated children to be reunited with a parent. But the deadline for that order has long passed and many children still remain in federal custody.
Tavarez-Polanco called it unconscionable that the federal government did not keep better track of the children and their families. “When you’re pulling newborn babies from their mother, you should certainly have controls in place so you can reunite the children back with their families,” she said. “The organization and safety controls are more effective when you pick up your child at Chuck E. Cheese!”
AFT is sponsoring Tavarez-Polanco’s trip after NYSUT recommended her due to her personal journey, work and activism in defending the rights of immigrant students and their families. As a longtime teacher at Albany’s bilingual Delaware Community School, Tavarez-Polanco has many students whose families are new to the country. Aside from the support she provides every day as a fifth-grade teacher, Tavarez-Polanco has also served as a go-between for families in the community navigating medical and legal difficulties. She has also volunteered as a translator for detainees in the Albany County Jail.
For Tavarez-Polanco, the ongoing advocacy is personal. Both her mother and father came to the Bronx from the Dominican Republic and she knows well how hard it can be for English language learners to succeed.
“I saw first-hand the discrimination of being a Spanish-speaking youngster, but my mom just kept telling us to work hard and study,” said Tavarez-Polanco. She’s proud to say she and all five of her siblings became “ successful and productive” citizens. Tavarez-Polanco earned her bachelor’s degree in English from SUNY Albany and decided to become a teacher after working as a teaching assistant in Albany schools.
“When I first heard what was happening to these children, I can’t describe the hurt that was in my heart,” Tavarez-Polanco said. “Their parents’ sin was just trying to get them a better life. How do you explain that to an 8-year old? Mommy came here looking for a better life and that’s why you haven’t seen me in three months. Or that’s why you’re sleeping on the floor in this detention center.”
Taverez-Polanco intends to keep speaking out until there are no more children being separated from their families, or placed in detention centers. “This never should have happened in the first place and we have to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” she said. “Kids should never be political pawns.”