“We do this work because the experiences of our students and our wider community and our work cannot be separated.”
That sentiment from Karen Reyes, an Austin ISD teacher and Education Austin board member, framed a virtual discussion on immigration and education hosted by Texas AFT’s Committee on Higher Education in May.
The committee, made up of members and leaders from Texas AFT’s higher ed local unions, brought together a diverse panel to discuss current issues with immigration and how those have affected our communities.
Joining Reyes, herself a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, were Julieta Garibay, co-founder of United We Dream, and Jose “Chito” Vela III, an immigration attorney with Walker Gates Vela Attorneys at Law.
The discussion explored the ways U.S. immigration policies affect educators who lead our classrooms, the students in those classrooms, and the communities in which we live. It also underscored the continued need for advocacy, as many of our students and our neighbors still face an uncertain future.
“The last four years we have been living in a very intense nightmare where there has been a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric, and it was just a constant attack that our community was under,” said Reyes, who recently visited the White House with other DACA recipients. “We now have a new administration, but that doesn’t mean we can put the brakes on things.”
The panel discussion was part of the committee’s “The More You Know” virtual seminar series, open to union members and employees in higher ed. It offered a number of takeaways about immigration and its place in public education decision-making and union advocacy.
What does immigration look like in Texas?
Using research from the American Immigration Council, Garibay explained the scope of the immigration in Texas — and, by extension, how many educators and students navigate a complex, often tumultuous reality:
- There are more than 4.9 million immigrants in Texas, making up 17% of the state’s population.
- At least 1.4 million U.S. citizens in Texas live with at least one undocumented family member.
- There are more than 107,000 DACA recipients in Texas.
- 1 in 5 workers in Texas is an immigrant.
How do immigration issues inform our work as union members?
“Any social justice issues definitely go hand-in-hand with our union work,” Reyes said. “Members we serve are human beings. We not only do [this work] because of those who are DACA recipients or those who are on the pathway to citizenship … but also our students and our wider community. Our work is so entwined with our community.”
Beyond union membership, Reyes said, educators have a duty to do “everything in our power to protect our students and their families.”
“Educators should always try to fight and be on the front lines for a lot of things because we see that in all aspects of our classroom whether it be immigration justice or racial justice or environmental justice,” she said.
How is immigration relevant to higher education, and how can we affect change as professors and staff?
As usual, the answer starts in the classroom.
“It’s important for professors to uplift the stories that many times are not told, such as the history of slavery, the genocide of Native folks, and the stories of immigrants,” Garibay said.
She addressed her comments directly to attendees.
“You have the power to create spaces of really uplifting those stories and really being able to share what has happened,” she said. “I think it’s a good lesson for us to remember how important it is to bring directly impacted folks into the rooms to have conversations and when they are not there, it’s also your job to say, ‘You know what? I’m not undocumented, but I can bring y’all someone that can actually speak from that perspective.'”
How else can we help in this fight?
Panelists stressed the importance of the ballot box in advocating for immigration justice in our communities.
“It’s important for those who have the ability to vote to use that vote in support of those who are not able to have a voice in decision-making in the United States,” Garibay said. “Now that folks have continued to organize, continued to demand something better, continued to actually engage voters to go out and vote in support of politicians that are actually aligned with our values, I think it’s exciting to think about what could come next. We have to demand change.”
Vela too emphasized holding those in power to account.
“Friend or foe, we keep the pressure on,” he said. “No one gets a pass (on immigration.)”
Beyond elections, there are many ways to get connected to immigration advocacy in the state of Texas.
- Periodically, our union family hosts citizenship clinics in Texas, which require volunteers. Earlier this year, Houston-area local unions worked with the Texas AFL-CIO and AFT on a clinic for immigrant workers. Your local union may be working on similar efforts.
- Outside of your union, organizations like the Equal Justice Center regularly host clinics for DACA recipients.
- United We Dream has multiple ongoing action campaigns to join.
- Many Texas-based immigration organizations are always seeking volunteers or donations: American Gateways, Casa Marianella, RAICES, Refugee Services of Texas, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.
- In the classroom, use the free lesson plans and resources from Share My Lesson to create welcoming communities, serve immigrant students, and explain the complexities of migration journeys.
Immigration Terms Explained
DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is a program that shields from deportation some undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. DACA recipients have protection against deportation for two years at a time, subject to renewal. They are also eligible for work permits and employer-provided health insurance. As Reyes noted in her remarks, DACA currently does not offer a pathway to citizenship.
Undocumented immigrants include anyone who does not possess a valid visa or other legal immigration documentation. This status could mean they entered the U.S. without inspection or stayed longer than their temporary visa permitted.
Refugee status can be granted to people who have been persecuted or fear persecution and serious harm in their home country because of their race, social caste, religion, political opinion, or nationality.
Asylum is protection available to those who meet the definition of refugee and are already in the United States or are seeking admission at a port of entry. The process of applying for asylum is arduous, but once granted, asylum opens a path to citizenship or permanent residency.