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'Education, Not Separation': Teachers March to Shelter for Immigrant Youth

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Updated

Houston

On Independence Day, hundreds of educators marched to a shelter for unaccompanied migrant children, chanting calls for freedom. 

The protesters are delegates to the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union. The NEA is holding its annual representative assembly here July 4-7. But the protest was not sanctioned by the NEA—it was a grassroots march organized by educators, who were horrified to learn their convention was blocks away from a facility for immigrant youth.

"The experiences these children are going through are going to scar them for life," said Gladys Márquez, a Chicago-area high school teacher of English-language learners and the chair of the national union's Hispanic Caucus, who helped organize the march. "As educators, we know that that will impact everything, from their learning, their social-emotional well-being, their sanity, their livelihoods—everything. And we just don't stand for that."

Educators marched down to the shelter decked out in red, white, and blue, and American flag clothing, holding signs and chanting slogans like, "This is what democracy looks like!" and "Down, down with separation, up, up with education."

The facility is called Casa Sunzal, and it is run by Southwest Key Programs, a controversial nonprofit that houses migrant children who are unaccompanied or who have been separated from their parents. The group says on its website that its mission is to provide a safe and friendly environment for children. Meanwhile, government-run immigration detention facilities have come under fire recently for squalid and overcrowded conditions. 

Neil Nowlin, the vice president for communications for Southwest Key, said there are about 200 boys and girls, aged 16 and 17, currently housed at Casa Sunzal. The vast majority of them came to the United States on their own, he said, mostly from Honduras and Guatemala.

Nowlin said nine accredited teachers provide education to the children in the shelter for six hours a day, five days a week. The children learn all the basics, he said, including English, history, and math, as well as vocational training.

Southwest Key Programs has had to close at least two Arizona shelters last year—one closure was due to reports of staffers abusing children in their care.

Beto O'Rourke, a Democratic presidential candidate, led a protest at Casa Sunzal last week, saying he could not get any information on the children in the facility. Southwest Key Programs later responded to Houston news site KHOU, saying it was not a detention center but a shelter, and that 234 licensed professionals care for the children.

Still, educators on Thursday were outraged at the thought of children being held away from their parents. They also see Casa Sunzal as a symptom of the larger issue of the United States' treatment of immigrant children and families. 

"As a teacher, I believe that all children, and all people, need to be respected, and children should not be in cages," said Kathy Aslamy, who teaches near Seattle. "We can no longer just sit by and be silent. This is not who we are as a country, this is not who we are as a democracy. ... I will bear witness to all of these children. I cannot see them in cages."

Many teachers said they teach immigrant students, making this issue especially personal to them. Some educators also talked about how they or their families are immigrants themselves.

"I think about myself, that I'm free, and I think they deserve to be free as well," said Heba Kazem, a Boston teacher who immigrated to the U.S. from Egypt. "[Teachers] understand the kind of hardship they're going through, so it's important to be their advocate."

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When the teachers reached the shelter, Patricia Frazier, a teacher from New Jersey whose parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic, shouted reassurances meant for the children in Spanish—"Estamos aquí para usted! Libertad!" or "We are here for you! Freedom!"

"I want them to hear us," she said. "I want them to know that we're here, not to be afraid."

Earlier this year, hundreds of teachers—including the National Teacher of the Year and several state teachers of the year—held a "teach-in" in El Paso, Texas, to protest the detention of immigrant children. There, many said they felt an obligation to speak out against what they saw as child abuse, since teachers are mandatory reporters.

Earlier in the day on July 4, delegates at the assembly passed a resolution calling for the "immediate end to the detention and criminalization of immigrant children and their families," through potential legal challenges, advocacy for legislation that protects immigrant families, and partnerships with immigrant rights' organizations. The resolution also asks NEA to "urge all presidential candidates to develop plans for comprehensive immigration reform that include ... ways to end ICE [i.e., Immigration and Customs Enforcement] raids and family separations."

Altogether, the resolution will cost the NEA about $421,000. 

Post updated on 7/5 with a response from a Southwest Key Programs spokesman.

Images: Educators protest outside the Casa Sunzal facility for immigrant youth on July 4. In the second photo, Patricia Frazier, right, shouts reassurances to the children in the shelter. —Madeline Will

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