the first day of school

Wednesday was my daughter’s first day of Kindergarten. And I managed to get through the whole day without any tears. I got through Thursday’s drop-off, too, even when my daughter stopped me outside the school and said: “You don’t need to come in, Mom. I know where to go.”

As I walked back home, I scrolled through Twitter on my phone. And that’s when I first saw the articles. On Wednesday, hundreds of immigrant workers in Forest, Mississippi had been detained, taken away without warning when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers raided the food processing plants where they worked.

The children of those workers came home from school to empty, locked houses. They were crying and looking desperately for their parents. It was their first day of school, too.


As I read, I couldn’t stop myself from crying. I thought of my own daughter. I thought of the moment when the bell rang on Wednesday afternoon. She stepped outside and didn’t see me, at least not at first. I saw the panic flash on her face – eyes wide, body tense, lip quivering just slightly. I waved and called her name. When she saw me, the panic evaporated into a broad grin. She took off running toward me, her too-big backpack thumping against the backs of her knees. She jumped into my arms and buried her face in my neck: “You’re here.”

For my daughter, the fear was momentary – forgotten in the flurry of excited stories about her first day at school.

For the children of Forest, Mississippi, the fear won’t end, even if their parents are released. And it probably started long before Wednesday’s raids.

For years, immigrant and mixed-status families have had to worry about the possibility of separation. Not just because of large-scale ICE raids like the ones we saw this week but because of the actions of local police departments, as well.

In Pennsylvania, for example, a report from Temple University’s Center for Social Justice found that state and local police departments regularly use traffic stops to target immigrants and demand identification – from drivers and from passengers. Many of those police departments were also found to be working closely with ICE.

Those traffic stops are particularly common in rural and suburban communities. Places where people have to drive – to get to work, to school, and to the grocery store. And that constant threat is deeply debilitating for families and communities.

I saw that fear at Maplewood (a pseudonym), the suburban public elementary school where I did the fieldwork for my book.   

At Maplewood, teachers told me about local police officers who would park outside the mobile home neighborhood where many Latinx immigrant and mixed-status families lived. According to the teachers, the police officers would pull over cars leaving the neighborhood and demand IDs for those inside.

Not surprisingly, the Latinx families were terrified. They were reluctant to go to parent-teacher conferences or even to the grocery store. They stopped letting their kids go to afterschool sports and homework programs. There was no bus for the afterschool programs, and the parents were afraid of what might happen if they drove to pick up their kids.

Some of the teachers coordinated efforts to visit the families at home. They brought food and books and read to the kids. But those small comforts couldn’t do much to solve the larger problem. Or ease the kids’ and parents’ fears.

And so, over time, most of the Latinx families moved out of the mobile home neighborhood or left Maplewood entirely. In a few cases, and fearful of being separated from their children, parents opted to move the whole family back to Guatemala or to Mexico, instead.

Of course, that’s the point of these devastating ICE raids – not just to find and remove a few hundred undocumented immigrants but to make every immigrant and mixed-status family so fearful of the possibility of separation that they will leave or decide not to come in the first place.  

Thoughts of the immigrant families in Maplewood and in Forest, Mississippi were heavy in my mind as I sat with my own kids at the dinner table on Thursday night.

I also thought about research by scholars like Maggie Hagerman and Amanda Lewis – research on how white parents and white teachers avoid talking to kids about race and racism and how that lack of discussion fuels the kind of “colorblind” bigotry that got us where we are today.

And so, as we sipped our tortilla soup and went around telling each other about our days, I said I was feeling sad and angry because our government is taking parents away from their kids. We’ve read books about immigration before (here’s one we especially like). Talked about why immigrants and refugees want to come to the United States. Talked about the racism and discrimination they face when they get here. But of course, my ever-curious five-year-old still had dozens of questions – What is ICE? Why would ICE take parents away from their kids? Who told ICE to do that? What’s going to happen to the parents? What’s going to happen to the kids?

I answered her questions as honestly as I could. When I finished, she looked up at me, paused for a long moment, and said: “I wish we had a good president. But if Donald Trump has to be president, then I wish he would be nice to the people who come here from different countries.”

The tears welled up in my eyes as I told her: “I wish that, too.”

*cross-posted at scatterplot*