The Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants is having a chilling effect in California’s classrooms, with schools reporting increased absenteeism and students having difficulty concentrating, even crying in class, teachers and administrators said.
“We may see it all as rhetoric and posturing, but I’ve witnessed kids from elementary school to college level stressed out and traumatized,” said Alejandra Acuna, an assistant professor at Cal State Northridge who studies trauma among urban youth. “We’ve got 8-year-olds worried their parents will have to go back to Mexico. I saw one student literally crying in the elevator. If you’re undocumented, it’s not just rhetoric — it’s about survival.”
Trump has pledged to build a wall along the Mexican border, end protections for young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children, ramp up deportations of undocumented residents and greatly restrict immigration generally. In schools with large immigrant populations, these issues have eclipsed the usual business of reading-writing-and-arithmetic and put student welfare — and civics lessons — at the forefront, teachers said.
Schools around the state are responding to students’ fears by offering counseling, lessons on the Constitution and immigrants’ rights, and encouraging students to talk about their fears.
At Oakland International High School, where the entire student body is immigrants, teachers have led art projects and government lessons, and paid special attention to students who appear stressed, said co-principal Carmelita Reyes.
“We try to be vigilant in monitoring the pulse of students,” she said. “When a kid is acting out, what’s the underlying issue? We ask, are you OK? Is your family OK? Can I look at your Facebook news feed? Sometimes they won’t tell you what’s going on, but their social media news feed is filled with all this terrifying stuff.”
The school has therapists who speak Spanish, Arabic, Cantonese, Farsi, Tigrinya and other languages, and teachers encourage students to talk about their family situations. The 11th- graders created “Know Your Rights” posters for the school, translated into students’ native languages, and the seniors led deportation teach-ins with younger students.
Even the neighbors got involved. After Trump’s election, they bought breakfast for the staff and all 360 students. They did it again after Trump announced his Muslim immigration ban, and then set up a scholarship fund for seniors. They also sent dozens of postcards telling students they’re welcome in California and the community cares about them. The postcards line the hallway bulletin boards.
“Trump has brought out the ugliness in America, but also this incredible warmth, charity and empathy,” Reyes said. “It’s made people really see immigrants, in a way maybe they didn’t before.”
One student, 18-year-old Petrona Mendoza, who moved here six years ago from Guatemala, said that whenever Trump unleashes a new threat against immigrants, she has trouble sleeping and concentrating in school.
“I have family members who don’t have papers, and it scares me they might be deported,” she said. “My aunt has a new baby. What if she gets sent back, and the baby stays? It’s scary to think about the future — if (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) goes away, it’ll be hard to go to college and work. I want to go to college and be a doctor, but I don’t know how I’ll do it.”
What made her feel better, she said, were civics lessons on immigrant rights. Until then, she didn’t know she had any. Seeing a counselor helps, too.
Her classmate, Ablel Alem, 19, moved to Oakland three years ago from Eritrea, after living in a refugee camp for several years. His family fled Africa because of a lack of adequate food and clean water, he said. After waiting so long to come to the U.S., Alem said he’s angered by Trump’s threats to curtail immigration.
“It makes me mad, but it doesn’t just affect me. It affects all immigrants to the U.S.,” he said. “Refugees come here with a lot of hope. It doesn’t make sense to me because everyone in America is an immigrant. Immigrants made this country.”
In Los Angeles Unified, the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies have led to a state of near-hysteria among some families, said Jose Navarro, principal at Social Justice Humanitas Academy, which serves primarily low-income Latino students.
“All it takes is for one person to say, ‘ICE is on campus’ and I’ll lose 20 percent of my students,” he said. “So not only are these kids facing the trauma of racism, violence and poverty, but now they have these mental health needs. All of this has had a very traumatic effect on children, and makes it very hard for them to focus on school.”
Navarro, a former California teacher of the year, encourages teachers to incorporate the immigration crisis into their Common Core curricula. By studying government, current events and law, students can learn narrative and expository writing, critical thinking and research skills, among other things.
Teachers also encourage students to discuss their fears in class.
“We tell the students, ‘This is a problem, so let’s problem solve.’ The students are hungry to talk about it and learn more — that should be embraced,” he said. “What are executive orders? What happens if your parents are deported? Let’s make a plan. Let’s not be reactive.”
Journal exercises are also helpful, not just to enhance writing skills but to help students settle their nerves and learn to express themselves, said Acuna at Cal State Northridge.
“The potential of losing a parent is one of the most traumatic things a child can experience,” she said. “It’s OK to talk about it. Expressing those feelings is better for a student’s health and well-being. And for teachers, sometimes you don’t need to do anything. You just need to listen.”