David Morales teaches social studies at Mayfield High School, in Las Cruces,
New Mexico, a city of a hundred thousand people, located fifty miles north
of the Mexican border. Some of his students are the children of undocumented
immigrants, and a few of them might even be undocumented themselves.
He doesn’t know which ones, exactly, and he doesn’t care. “When
they’re in my classroom, I’m there to teach them,” he
told me recently. “I make a point of not knowing, unless the student
wants me to.” His classes are small, with around twenty students
each, and when any kid is out, “it’s obvious,” he said.
“But last month it was painfully obvious.”
On February 15th, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ice) officers conducted a
raid in Las Cruces, arresting people at a trailer park on the outskirts of
town. The raid came a few weeks after President Trump signed two executive
orders, signalling his plans to fulfill a campaign promise of cracking
down on undocumented immigrants. Rumors spread that there were further
raids planned, though none took place.
On February 16th, a Thursday, Las Cruces’s public schools saw a sixty-per-cent
spike in absences compared to the previous week—twenty-one hundred
of the district’s twenty-five thousand students missed school. Two
thousand students stayed away again the next day. Attendance returned
to normal the following week, which made the two-day rash of absences
all the more pronounced. “It was alarming,” Greg Ewing, the
district’s superintendent, told me. News of the raid caused such
fear in the community that Ewing
wrote a letter to parents on the 16th, in English and Spanish, reassuring them that “we
do not anticipate any ice activity occurring on school campuses.”
His reassurances only went so far. Students might not have been at risk,
but their parents seemed to fear that they themselves would be stopped
coming or going from the schools. “Parents often don’t have
legal papers,” he said. “They just have to survive day by
day so their kids can get educated.” At the city’s high schools,
absences went up by twenty-five per cent in the two days after the raids,
but the numbers were even higher at the schools for younger students,
where many still rely on their parents to drop them off and pick them
up every day. In the two days after the raids, absences at elementary
schools rose by almost a hundred and fifty per cent.
“As my students filed in, I was worried,” Morales said. “Who’s
not going to be here?” In one of his classes, three students were
missing on the 16th. The next day it was five. “My first thought
was, Are they O.K.?” he said. “Then, What if their parents
got picked up? Do they have a place to stay?”
Jennifer Amis, the principal of Arrowhead Park Early College High School,
where the student body is almost entirely Hispanic, received a call from
the nurse’s office on the morning of the 16th. A freshman had been
there, sobbing, since her mother dropped her off that morning. They had
been in the car, en route to school, when they spotted roadblocks set
up by immigration officers checking for citizenship papers along the highway;
they doubled back, taking back roads to get to school.
The mother had decided to stay home from her job at a restaurant, but the
girl’s father had gone to work earlier that morning. “She
and her mother called him as soon as they arrived at school,” Amis
said. “They said they hoped to see him that night.” The student
was rattled, but she came to school both that day and the next. “There
were other students we just stopped seeing,” Amis said. One morning
the next week, several parents, still concerned, came in after requesting
to meet with her. “The families were afraid to express anything
factual about themselves,” she said. “They are reluctant to
tell us what’s going on. We have to do most of the talking. We have
to reassure them that their kids are safe.”
Fears about immigration raids extend well beyond the borderlands, and community-wide
reactions like the ones in Las Cruces were seen during the Obama Administration,
too. A former Department of Homeland Security official under Obama, who
asked that his name not be used, told me that the department used to receive
anguished letters not just from educators who witnessed spikes in student
absences after immigration raids but also from doctors whose patients
missed appointments because they were scared they’d be targeted
by ice agents at hospitals.
In the winter of 2016, community concerns regarding possible raids prompted
the C.E.O. of Prince George’s County public schools, in Maryland,
to write a
letter to D.H.S., lamenting the “devastating impacts . . . on the academic,
social and emotional well-being of all of our students.” A month
later, attendance at a high school in Durham, North Carolina,
dropped precipitously after a student was taken into custody by immigration agents
while walking to school. Last month, a few school districts around the
country noted that a large number of student absences coincided with “Day
Without Immigrants,” a nationwide work boycott, on February 16th,
organized in response to the Administration’s anti-immigrant policies.
But in Las Cruces school officials had no doubts that it was the raid
that caused attendance to drop.
“There’s always some recoiling after raids or policy announcements,”
Roberto Gonzales, a professor of education at Harvard and the author of “Lives in Limbo,” told me. “But in the last month or so there have been conflicting
messages from the Trump Administration regarding its enforcement policy.
There have been several large-scale and visible enforcement actions. Parents
have been picked up after dropping off their children from school. All
of this fuels rumor and dread for worst-case scenarios.”
In Las Cruces, the district’s social workers have been making house
calls to visit families whose children were absent from school after reports
of the raid. One day late last month, a social worker named Julie Kirkes
drove to a dilapidated, flat-roofed stucco house in town. A small window
on the front side of the house was covered by a sheet. It was the address
she’d been given for the family of an elementary-school student
with a good attendance record who hadn’t shown up for several days
after the raid.
When Kirkes knocked on the door, a middle-age woman answered, and led her
inside. “The inside of the house was almost cave-like,” Kirkes
said. As they walked into a small, dark living room, she noticed a large
blanket hanging from the ceiling of the hallway, blocking her view. “The
families don’t know me personally, and when they hear ‘social
worker’ they get scared and often think that it’s the person
who takes their kids away,” Kirkes said.
She asked the woman whether the child needed health care, clothes, or food.
After a few minutes, the woman seemed to relax. She called out to the
rest of the family, who’d been hiding in the hallway, behind the
blanket. “You can come out now,” she shouted, and three children,
their father, and grandfather appeared. A few days later, the child returned
to school. During the last month, Kirkes has visited a few other houses
that had been abandoned before she arrived—the residents had fled.
In 2011, D.H.S. issued a policy
memo to field officers outlining a list of so-called “sensitive locations”—including
schools, churches, and hospitals—where they should refrain from
searching, interrogating, or arresting individuals “for the purpose
of immigration enforcement.” D.H.S. insists that its agents still
follow the policy, but immigrant-community advocates are concerned that
a new culture is taking root among the agency’s rank and file. “The
Administration has embraced the notion that it has removed the handcuffs
from ice and C.B.P. personnel, which is likely to lead many to believe
they can ignore written policies with impunity,” Tom Jawetz, the
vice-president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, told me.
The principle of “sensitive locations” has always been ambiguous,
which only compounds the current fears in Las Cruces. “Where does
the safe zone end? At the bus stop? On the school bus?” Maria Flores,
the president of the city’s board of education, said. Ewing, the
superintendent, shared with me a note he had distributed to the city’s
school-bus drivers, to carry with them while transporting students on
field trips. Because Las Cruces is so close to Mexico, Border Patrol checkpoints
are common along the highways leading in and out of town.
Forty students from various district high schools recently attended a language
expo at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, which meant passing
through these checkpoints. “I authorize that the students, staff,
and chaperones on this bus travel together for an educational activity,”
Ewing wrote. So far, at least, the power of his note to prevent federal
agents from conducting immigration enforcement has not been tested.
Last week, I spoke by phone to an undocumented woman whose two daughters,
aged ten and thirteen, are enrolled in elementary and middle school in
Las Cruces. She asked me not use any of their names, and would only speak
to me in the presence of her younger daughter’s school principal,
whom she trusted. Each morning, she drives her two daughters to school,
dropping them off, one after the other, before heading to her job as a
home-aid worker. “School goes hand in hand with the home,”
she said. “I speak to my daughters’ teachers all the time
to make sure everything is going well. They are going to attend college
someday.” The decision to keep her daughters home from school wasn’t
something she took lightly. But for four days after the raids, the three
of them stayed inside their house. “They wanted to leave, but I
told them we couldn’t—not yet,” she said.
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