For Hispanic students, the first day of school came with more anxiety than usual.
In late July, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials raided at least three apartment complexes in Memphis, part of a “surge” that led to about 26 arrests.
School officials worried that many Hispanic immigrants wouldn’t send their children to school, afraid the students would come home to find members of their family gone if ICE agents made another sweep.
So in a show of solidarity, members of several churches and immigration advocacy organizations were waiting Monday morning at several Shelby County Schools with high Latino student populations.
Rondell Treviño, founder and director of the Memphis Immigration Project, and others stood outside Kingsbury Middle and High schools, waving signs with messages such as “Welcome! I’m happy to see you!” and “Ninos de inmigrantes son bienvenidos aqui [Children of immigrants are welcome here].”
Students — and their parents — showed their bravery, said Treviño, who is also a staff member at Woodland Presbyterian Church.
“I was surprised; it seemed like many students weren’t afraid,” Trevino said. “There was courage rather than fear.”
Shelby County Schools doesn’t require immigration documents to register students, and the district last week said the raids were no reason to not attend school. Some students said ditching the first day just wasn’t an option.
“Everybody in the community is, I guess you would say, they are shaken by what happened, but I didn’t hear any of my friends or anyone else say they weren’t coming today,” said Anjelica Yunez, 15, a student at Kingsbury High.
She added that although some people are afraid of the potential knock at the door, immigration law is, for now, still the same.
“They are definitely trying to scare us, but this is an awesome community,” Yunez said. “We deserve to be able to go to school just like a white person, a black person, anyone else.”
Last week, President Trump proposed the RAISE Act, which would drastically curtail the ability of legal residents to bring family members into the country. The legislation would also cut the number of green cards issued in America by half over the next 10 years, and, as Trevino pointed out, would “only seek to allow immigrants to come who are highly educated and skilled.”
“This act is horrendous because cutting legal immigration for the sake of cutting immigration would cause irreparable harm to the American worker and their family,” Treviño said. “Think of how many families would stay separated from one another with this harsh of a cut.”
Locally, ICE agents have drawn criticism from advocacy groups for going into homes without search warrants and detaining people illegally. A spokesperson for ICE said “family units” and those with ties to illegal activity and/or gangs are the targets, a broad statement that, theoretically, justifies agents entering a property without a proper warrant.
“God watches over immigrants and this should compel Christians to watch over immigrants as well. If God’s character is one that watches over immigrants, then as Christians we have no other choice but to do the exact same,” Treviño said.
One practical way to live that out, he said, was to welcome students with signs, hugs and handshakes at schools in Hispanic communities.
“We believe this will let them know that the church is not silent on this issue, but that we want to be there for our immigrant brothers and sisters.”
New Direction Christian Church and Agape Family Ministries also went to several schools, including Hickory Hill Middle School, Sheffield High, Sheffield Elementary, Winridge Elementary and Hickory Ridge Elementary. Staff with Christ United Methodist Church went to support students at Berclair Elementary. All of these Shelby County Schools have a high number of Latino students.
Kingsbury High student John-Paul Hernandez, 17, said it was good to see the students had help if they needed it.
“Some people may be really scared, so yeah, it’s really nice they came out,” he said.
The crowds were proof that members of the Hispanic community weren’t about to back away from their right to public education, Treviño said.
“In the immigrant community, and especially in the Latino community, we have a lot of heart and we fight for what’s right,” he said. “All the Hispanic students I saw today at both schools seemed like they were showing that despite what’s going on, they were going to go school and not be afraid.”
He said witnessing such strength is a perfect example of how community members can actually minister to those within the church.
“We’re not just speaking up for the voiceless; we’re speaking up with them.”
Where do we go from here?
Take this test to see if you could be admitted to America under Trump’s merit-based immigration system.
Support Latino Memphis’ Derechos (Rights) program.
Dispel the myths about immigration. Did you know that the country with the most visitors who stay longer than authorized is Canada? You do now. Read more here.
Know what your rights are if immigration agents are at your door. Below are short videos produced by the ACLU in Spanish and in English.
Rebekah Marie Yearout is a freelance journalist and photographer in Memphis and a loving mama.
This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.