Worried students and educators confused about their legal responsibilities toward immigrant families have spurred a U.S. government teacher to host an information meeting next week.
After watching his students spend their lunch period fearfully viewing televised news conferences about government crackdowns on undocumented immigrants, history teacher Nathan Gibbs-Bowling was spurred to act. Next week Gibbs-Bowling, who was Washington’s Teacher of the Year in 2016, will host a town hall for other educators unsure about their rights and responsibilities toward non-native students and their families.
The ACLU of Washington will have attorneys on hand.
“There are laws here that already exist to protect students, and teachers play a really important front-line role in communicating with families,” said Vanessa Hernandez, education equity director at the civil-rights organization, who has fielded more questions from teachers and parents during the past three weeks than in her previous six years with the group.
Last month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order temporarily suspending the U.S. refugee program and banning immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries. Since then immigration officers have rounded up dozens of undocumented residents as part of the president’s aim to beef up enforcement of existing immigration laws.
“I have three young ladies in my classroom who are literally terrified,” said Gibbs-Bowling, a decorated educator who visited the White House last year.
Many students who were born here as citizens are frantic with worry about family members who have “complicated immigration status,” he added. “If I’m not going to use my platform and 6,000 Twitter followers to advocate for students, what’s the point of having it?”
The immigration town hall will be held Feb. 27 at 6 p.m. in Tacoma’s IBEW Hall.
Gibbs-Bowling noted that the Northwest Detention Center, among the largest holding facilities for undocumented immigrants in the nation, sits less than a mile from the Lincoln High School classroom in Tacoma where he teaches.
“It’s very difficult for students to focus on the minutiae of school when there’s unpredictability in your life, and this is bringing insane unpredictability into the lives of our students,” he said. “It’s interfering with their learning. I can’t look a kid in the eye who is terrified about her family and say we’re going to focus on the Dred Scott decision or some other obscure thing.”
Students in the United States have a constitutional right to education, regardless of their immigration status. But school employees are confused about their responsibilities, Hernandez said, particularly regarding the security of student information.
“These students need to know I will advocate and fight for them,” Gibbs-Bowling said. “And staff need to know the right information to disseminate to families. If my office ladies don’t know what they do and don’t have to share, they don’t know. If teachers know that they can refuse to open doors, that will change the calculus. We can only rise up if we are informed.”