Updated: Jun 29, 2021
I recently heard journalist Paola Ramos speak to the common thread between immigrants. As diverse as the immigrant population is in this country, oftentimes, there’s someone in our family line who moved to the United States with the hope that further lines would have the opportunity to “lean in” to their full selves and have more options in their lives. This has certainly been true for me. My family moved to the United States from Mexico when I was seven years old. It was ingrained in me that there were more opportunities here than in my home country, not as a matter of judgement, more as a fact. There have been multiple times when I have found that idea challenging to believe, especially when I navigated points of transition as an undocumented young person. I certainly did not feel like I had many options when I was in the process of applying to college in North Carolina and felt the doors closing in on me when I was ineligible from so many scholarships, loans, and all forms of federal or state financial aid. I again felt the pressure and anxiety of being reduced to my immigration status when I graduated from college undocumented and knew that despite my degree, opportunities would be limited.
But throughout college, I met people and plugged into a movement that challenged our exclusion and erasure. That work was led by Queer immigrant youth who, drawing connections to the LGBTQIA+ movement, pushed us to “come out” of the shadows and modeled doing so. How apropos that we should honor immigrant heritage month and Pride month in June, and that this month also holds the anniversary of DACA, which would have not been possible without their leadership. They agitated, escalated, and demanded that this country recognize us, our contributions, and our potential. While it’s far from the end-all, this policy made a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of immigrant youth.
Just as we gained from a movement that recognized we can move mountains when we address exclusion and discrimination by stepping into the power of dropping shame, showing up as our whole selves, and naming injustice, we must recognize that current narratives continue to exclude and erase. It’s not lost on me that this month, we also recognize Juneteenth. This day marks the anniversary of a two-year delay in enslaved Black people in Texas learning that slavery was outlawed. It’s a painful acknowledgement that even when policy changes, implementation takes a while, especially when the status quo doesn’t agree with the change. In this month, and always, we need to recognize the diversity of the immigrant community, and the reality of disparate consequences and outcomes for some communities. When immigration data is disaggregated by race and ethnicity, it becomes clear that Black immigrants are more likely to face police interaction resulting in an increased likelihood of family separation and deportation. As we have watched Title 42 and Remain In Mexico policies play out, Haitian families have been most likely to be detained, deported, and expulsed. A refrain that I consistently hold, which I first heard from Denae Joseph, is “citizenship will not protect us”. That’s not just true of Black immigrants, it is the case for Black native-born citizens too, as we have seen repeatedly throughout the history of this country. As an immigrant, I know that I must always stand in solidarity with Black people in this country, and recognize that the playing field will never be level for any of us until it addresses their pain.
We must also recognize that undocumented and asylum-seeking immigrant adults are thoroughly punished for their choice to seek a better life in the United States. The barriers and limited opportunities that law imposes on them impacts their children. While it’s always been the case, never has it been more apparent than in the last fifteen months of a global pandemic. As a policy entrepreneur with Next100, I’ve listened to undocumented parents speak about their aspirations for their children and surveyed educators about their immigrant and multilingual students over the last year. As an ImmSchools program facilitator, I shared space with undocumented mothers and students who consistently showed up to arm themselves with knowledge and support each other through a challenging time. The challenges undocumented and mixed-status families have faced and will continue to be impacted by without proper action, including deepened poverty, devastating loss, and toxic stress are gutwrenching. We can’t sit idly by. We have to respond, and demand that their needs be addressed. As someone in the education policy space, I know that at minimum, schools must be equipped to address specific barriers for immigrant students and multilingual learners as the country navigates the reopening of schools in the fall. If not, not only do we risk losing the potential of a generation of immigrant children, we also risk losing the teachers who genuinely want to do right by them. No teacher can be equipped to go through this challenge alone- school districts must systemically prepare.
As limited as things felt at certain points along my path, people advocated for me and dismantled some obstacles that I would not have been able to overcome on my own. For all of us who identify as immigrants or the children of immigrants and are here due to the guidance and support of those who came before us, it’s our turn and our privilege to move forward on broadening narratives. It’s our turn to recognize that we get to show up and speak to creating the world we wish we’d had access to as children and now want to ensure for future generations. It’s our turn to own our agency. When I’m tired, frustrated, or dismayed by the world and the ugliness of politics, I recharge by thinking of my former students and their families. I recharge by thinking of my nieces and nephews. I want options to be open for them. I don’t want their potential to be dimmed by people doubting them, failing to recognize their needs, or creating conditions that make things more challenging for them. I want to be able to say to them, “You can show up as your full self and be accepted and celebrated for who you are. You will not have to navigate life with fear that you’ll be discriminated against or cast out for your identity, or with shame of who you are and how you show up in the world.” Every child deserves that, and our Black, Indigenous, Brown, Immigrant, and Queer children most urgently need it, given how often they are denied the support to know and show up as their full selves. We still have a long way to go, but I have no doubt it’s a worthwhile journey. I’m certain that we’ll get much further if we go together.
Rosario Quiroz Villarreal is an advocate for immigrants and students. Growing up undocumented, she understands the barriers that exist for many immigrant families and the importance of inclusive policy solutions. She is currently a Director of Policy and Advocacy with TNTP. Previously, she worked with Next100 as a policy entrepreneur and ImmSchools as a program facilitator. She has also taught in public schools in Texas and New York.
All views expressed in this Op-Ed are her own and not representative of any organizations.