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Standing up for the most vulnerable: Innocent migrant children in detention camps

Reflections on my experience serving an organization trying to draw attention to the plight of 11,000 immigrant children being held in detention by the US Government


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End child detention

t’s always a great privilege for me to get to use my professional skills in the service of a cause I believe in deeply. At the end of last year, I was approached by a local Seattle activist I had met through my work helping to organize the 2018 Seattle Women’s March. She wanted to know if I would be interested in serving as the communications director for Teachers Against Child Detention, an organization founded by Mandy Manning, the 2018 National Teacher of the Year who happens to be based in Spokane, Washington.


As part of her Teacher of the Year duties, Mandy had traveled to the border town of El Paso, Texas where she became aware that more than 2,000 innocent immigrant children were being held in a detention center in Tornillo, a town in the middle of the Texas desert. As a teacher who teaches English to newly arrived refugee and immigrant children, Mandy understood that keeping children separated from their parents in detention camps for extended period of times is extremely damaging.


The forgotten children


After doing some basic research, Mandy discovered that more than 10,000 innocent immigrant children, many of whom had traveled on their own across thousands of miles to be united with parents and other relatives in the US were still being held in child detention camps across the country. Some of the children in these detention camps were also victims of the US Government’s “zero tolerance” child separation policies. Mandy realized that she had an opportunity to use her “National Teacher of the Year” platform to advocate for these children. And this is how she came to form Teachers Against Child Detention along with my friend, Leslie and other Seattle-based activists.


End child detention

I joined the team soon afterwards. I too had sat horrified and open-mouthed as I watched the television coverage of toddlers being ripped out of their parents’ arms at the border. I wept when I saw our government treating immigrant children like animals, placing them in chain link cages with only floor mats and what looked like tin foil blankets for comfort. My partner and I joined thousands of other Seattlites to stand outside a local detention center to stand in solidarity with the mothers who were kept there, separate from their children. The poster from the event calling for an end to family separation is still in our living room window.  So, when Leslie asked if I would help draw attention to this ongoing atrocity, I jumped at the opportunity. I was relieved that I would be able to do more for these children and their families than hold a sign at a rally.


The initial plan was to hold a day-long live-streamed “Teach-in For Freedom” outside the child detention center in Tornillo. The hope was to use the Teach-In to focus national attention on the plight of these children and to call on the U.S. Government to end the criminalization and detention of innocent immigrant children and their families.


end child detention

However, we started hearing rumors over the holidays that the government was planning to close the detention facility in Tornillo early in the new year. While this was good news, it did pose a challenge for TACD. We had a website and had attracted early media attention around the idea that the Teach-In would be outside the Tornillo facility. We had also started to build partnerships with a number of immigrant rights and teacher organizations in the El Paso/Tornillo area.  Leslie traveled to El Paso in early January to meet with these partners and to help us make a decision about where to hold the Teach-In if Tornillo closed.

Pivoting to El Paso

On her return, the closing of Tornillo was confirmed and we made the decision to hold the Teach-In in El Paso which was rapidly becoming the “ground zero” for the government’s cruel immigration policies.


The closing of the Tornillo child detention camp, however, did not signal an end to the Trump administration’s policy of detaining immigrant children. While the Tornillo facility was closing, the government was expanding – almost doubling – another “emergency” child detention facility in Homestead, Florida. This center is being operated by a private contractor and is not subject to the same oversight that government-run facilities are.


What happened to the kids in Tornillo? Many were released to sponsors in the US after the Department of Homeland Security relaxed its requirement that each member of the household that would sponsor an immigrant child submit to fingerprinting. This was a thinly veiled attempt to apprehend undocumented people. The result was that sponsors were not coming forward to offer homes to detained children. A fair number of children were also transferred to other detention facilities in Texas and across the country.


Gearing up for action

Once we made the decision to hold the Teach-in in El Paso, the first task was to draft a clear campaign document. In my professional world, this document was similar to what I call a messaging framework. It clearly communicated what the problem was we were trying to address, what we would do to address it and the change we were trying to create. Perhaps the most important part was a clearly articulated set of calls we were making on behalf of detained immigrant kids and their families. The document, which went through many iterations, became the foundation for all our communications.


It was also the starting point for a new website I built for the organization and the Teach-In. My goal was to create a website that would engage people intellectually and emotionally and inspire them to act. We identified a range of actions we wanted the general public as well as teachers to take in support of immigrant children. We also wanted to inspire teachers to spend the money to travel to El Paso to attend the Teach-In in person over President’s Day weekend.


Once the website was in place, we were able to activate our social media platforms which became a critical part of building awareness. Our main focus was on Facebook and Twitter. We started to post articles about child detention and about the Teach-In. Soon teachers were engaging with our posts and sharing them with their friends.


In the meantime, we had assembled a larger virtual team from across the country to help organize the Teach-In. Weekly conference calls and a Slack channel made sure that everyone was informed and accountable. Each week I felt honored to be in the company of a group of kind people who were stepping up to do something they really believed in. Sub-groups had formed to work on logistics, the program for the day, recruiting political support and more.


Our social media campaigns became more focused. We developed “Seven days of Action” which ran in the week before the Teach-In. We defined specific actions members of the public could take each day to support immigrant children and the Teach-In. We used a social press kit solution to make these posts available to our partners to post. We also used influencers to amplify these posts.


In the weeks leading up to the Teach-in, I sent out media advisories and press releases to a growing list of local and national media contacts. We knew that the move from Tornillo to El Paso would cost us media attention, but we hoped that the idea that teachers were coming from across the country and Mexico to attend a day-long event to advocate for immigrant children would be of interest.


Can we attract media attention?

Full disclosure:  I have been writing this on the plane to El Paso. It is Saturday afternoon and I have no idea how many teachers will be coming tomorrow (February 17)and whether any national media outlets other than Univision and PBS will be sending crews to cover the Teach-In. We have a full program starting at 8.45AM that includes elected officials like Veronica Escobar, U.S. Representative for Texas’s 16th congressional district as well as leading education and political figures, including John King, Secretary of Education during the Obama Administration, Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and  Alfonso Cepeda Salas, Secretary-General, Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (Mexico’s largest teacher’s union). They will be joined by groups of teachers who will teach lessons throughout the day on a range of issues that impact immigrant children.


We have received statements of support from Washington state Governor Jay Inslee, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Congressman Adam Smith (DA-WA) as well as Congresswoman Ann McLane Kuster (NH-02)as well as from other organizations.

But we have attracted very little national media attention to date – other than an article in the Washington Post. This feels like a personal failure to me, but I have to remind myself of the strange times in which we are currently living. Two days ago, the President declared a national emergency so that he can circumvent Congress to allocate funds to build a wall along the southern border. This has been the focus of the 24 hour new cycle.  And of course, the constant stream of revelations coming from the Muller investigation.


It saddens me that it is of little interest to the media that hundreds of teachers are spending their own money to travel to El Paso from cities across the US and Mexico to stand up for innocent immigrant children and to ask the U.S. Government to end the criminalization and detention of these children and their families. The plight of these children – more than 10,000 of them – seems to slip below the surface of our attention each time our president does something new to cause outrage.

On my way home from El Paso on Monday, I will update this post with an honest account of what happened.


Update

An early morning flight from El Paso to Seattle via Salt Lake City may not be the perfect time/place to reflect on the events of yesterday. But, here goes.  It was extremely satisfying to be part of what turned out to be a very well organized event. The weeks of planning paid off and the Teach-in went off flawlessly. The live-stream, which depended on a public internet connection, ran all day allowing teachers from across the country to participate.


A few hundred teachers from across the US were joined by colleagues who crossed the nearby boarder bridge from Mexico.  They gathered in historic San Jacinto Plaza for a day of learning and inspiration. Senator Veronica Escobar set the tone for the day and was followed by a succession of speakers and teachers who taught lessons individually and in groups about the history of immigration as well as the impacts of detention on children. There were repeated calls for the US Government to end its zero tolerance policy which leads to the criminalization and detention of immigrant children and their families. Speaker after speaker called on the Trump administration to release children from detention facilities.


Unfortunately, those who need to act on these messages the most will most likely not hear them because, apart from a crew from PBS, the national media did not think this event was worthy of their attention. We are thankful for the local television stations who sent reporters and cameras and filed reports which aired on the nightly news.

What next?

So, the question is “what next?”  What can this organization do to achieve its goal of ensuring that no child who is applying for asylum in the US is kept in a detention camp. What will move the needle the most to persuade the government to change its destructive policies and respect the right of each child to be free? This is still an open question but what we do know is that there is much work that still needs to be done.


We also need to ask how we get the news media to broaden their focus from whatever the “story of the day” is (usually something that the President has done or said) to include critical issues – like the ongoing detention of innocent children – that are not yet resolved and need the full force of public attention and outrage. Because it has become clear, that without the full force of public outrage, change is unlikely to happen.