The Power of a Caring Adult in the Life of an Undocumented Youth

In December 1983, a 12-year-old girl was uprooted from her school, friends and neighborhood due to the El Salvadorian civil war. When she arrived in the U.S., her family faced acculturation, discrimination and struggled to make ends meet. Their support system became their local church and community center. For this girl, school was crucial for social interaction, academics, and guidance and she began to excel academically. Although her mother had not gone to school past the 8th grade, this girl’s dream was to attend college. During her senior year in high school, her future was uncertain due to her visa status. At the end of the school year a notice came in the mail announcing that the family’s green cards had been processed and — the biggest news — that she could attend college.

I was that girl.

My path led me to becoming a school social worker, serving a diverse group of students in the Washington, D.C., Metro area. Some are children, like me, who were forced to leave their country due to violence and abuse. I am on the front lines bridging school, home, and community. Immigrant children bring rich cultural backgrounds to our schools and expose their peers to different ways of understanding the world. It makes school a true global educational experience and encourages teachers to become creative in their differentiation strategies. But many immigrant children struggle with learning due to traumatic experiences, lack of resources and the daily fear that they or their parents could be deported.

Recently, for example, a young immigrant mother shared her story for the first time with me, disclosing that her five-year-old son had told her on several occasions that he wanted to die. She also told me about the violence she had experienced as a child and recalled the day she and her son witnessed her aunt’s murder. When she made the journey to the U.S., she had to leave her son with a relative where he was exposed to verbal and physical abuse. At age five, he crossed the border, and had to readjust to living with his mother, attending a new school, learning a new language, and living in a new country. In school he had difficulty remembering and staying focused. It was hard to find services, such as a mental health provider, for the family because of their immigration status and income. The family was eventually linked to a program that offers individual and family therapy. During this process the boy and his mother were facing deportation and were referred to an immigration lawyer.

The boy is now in fifth grade and has progressed socially and academically. He is reading on grade level and actively contributes in his classroom. His mother is attending English classes. She plans to study nursing and make sure her son attends college. He wants to become a police officer when he grows up. His dreams could become reality with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy that allows undocumented individuals who arrived in the U.S. before age 16 and who meet certain criteria to receive relief from removal or two years and work authorization (more information can be found here).

As school social workers we need to be up to date on immigration laws and have resources available for all families that enter our schools. It is our job as social workers, counselors, teachers, and administrators to ensure that all students and parents have access to the information and resources they need. I learned from a young age that schools are a safe haven for undocumented students. Let us become champions these students deserve.

Ana Bonilla is a social worker for Alexandria City Public School System and the 2014 National Social Worker of the Year.

Resources for serving undocumented youth can be found here. More information about educational supports for immigrants, refugees, asylees, and other new Americans can be found here.

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