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Obama’s immigration order raises more questions than answers for my students

Editor’s note: President Barack Obama’s executive order on immigration last year granted deportation relief to many immigrants, but some are raising concerns that it could raise more barriers for its intended target population. Marysol Gomez, who teaches three miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, discusses how the initiative might not impact her students as much as she would hope.

We were alone having our usual quiet lunch in my classroom when a student brought up her mother’s citizenship status. She seemed reluctant to talk about it, almost apologetic, and even though it was just us, she lowered her voice. She asked if I had any contacts or resources that could help her mother become documented, and I promised I would do what I could.

teachersloungeIn all my years as a teacher, she is the only student who has ever turned to me for support despite the fact that my school is only three miles north of the border with Tijuana, Mexico.

The border and its reinforced fences are permanent fixtures in our lives. Our geographic location, coupled with a shared cultural background and recent history, make it impossible to ignore immigration issues and policy announcements such as President Obama’s new immigration initiative.

The truth is that I do not know the extent of how the president’s executive actions on immigration will impact my students, because issues of lawful status are a taboo subject, and because the language describing the initiative was daunting, confusing, and left me with more questions than answers. Practical issues of language and cultural sensitivity were simply overlooked.

The few discussions I have had with students on their immigration status or of that of their parents have been very hushed, filled with embarrassment and shame. It’s almost like they’re telling me a dirty secret: they pull me aside, and in very low voices try to explain the circumstances in which they live. Most tell me about visiting parents living in Tijuana who have been deported and about the burden of crossing the heavily transited border on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis.

As an educator, I take pride in serving as a liaison and support for my students. I, myself, am from a Mexican immigrant background, speak Spanish, and have studied immigration policy; my students know all of this, yet they still feel as though they have something to hide. My students place an enormous amount of pressure on themselves to do well in school so that they “can help their parents out.” They also write emails and resumes for parents, tutor siblings, cook and clean while their parents work long hours. Ultimately, the goal remains the same: lifting their families out of poverty and making mom and dad proud.

So for those who are bold enough to begin to tackle the legal immigration process, where do they begin? The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website, in a section aimed at people applying for deferred status, warns against fraud and asks those interested to subscribe to updates via email. This takes for granted that people have access to the Internet along with the knowledge and know-how to research the next steps. In that case, the process of researching how to obtain documentation would likely fall on the younger generation, those who are more tech savvy and have more language skills. I can’t help but be resentful that this may transform into yet another burden for my students to bear — a burden that they are reluctant to share even with me.

Moreover, from my perspective, it is almost laughable to think that somehow people would emerge from the shadows, eyes blinking in the sunlight, ready to take advantage of Obama’s initiatives. They are afraid, and rightfully so, as this administration has deported a record amount of people.

I am not an expert on immigration, but I believe that true reform must address the issue of access. The reality is that many immigrants, both documented and undocumented, do not have the means to decipher the legal jargon of immigration law. If new policies are not framed and presented in such a way such that people feel comfortable taking advantage of them, then they are worthless.

Obama’s announcement can be viewed as a step in the right direction, but I would not call it a victory for immigrants. It likely brings a long a set of financial and bureaucratic challenges that will be compounded by strong social taboos.

Not exactly something to be very excited about.

Marysol Gomez is a social studies teacher at San Ysidro High School.

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