Some teachers, students give Oklahoma immigration laws a bad grade

Young adults who work hard in school but might be deported question whether they should even get an education.
BY GINNIE GRAHAM - Tulsa World Modified: August 8, 2011 at 9:07 am •  Published: August 8, 2011
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photo - Student Council President Dimitri Wortham (center) and secretary Angie Mata (left) join other members of the student council to form a tunnel with their arms for parents and students to pass through as they are greeted at the front door during the Back 2 School Bash at Santa Fe South Charter High School in Oklahoma City on Monday, Aug. 1, 2011. Photo by John Clanton
Student Council President Dimitri Wortham (center) and secretary Angie Mata (left) join other members of the student council to form a tunnel with their arms for parents and students to pass through as they are greeted at the front door during the Back 2 School Bash at Santa Fe South Charter High School in Oklahoma City on Monday, Aug. 1, 2011. Photo by John Clanton

When Chris Brewster was a new schoolteacher and soccer coach, he was worried when a 14-year-old player disappeared from practices.

The other boys joked he would be back in a couple of weeks. He was.

“He and his family had been deported to Mexico,” Brewster said. “I don't know how he handled me yelling at him to run harder in practice when he could go home that evening and find his mom and dad deported or he could be picked up.

“From that day forward, I knew this was something we had to deal with.”

Brewster started the Santa Fe South charter school in 2001. By the nature of the school's location, the majority of students are Hispanic, either immigrants or first-generation Americans.

The school does not keep track of whether students are living in the country legally, but educators estimate that up to 25 percent may be undocumented.

"What we are seeing is a downturn in undocumented students because many were born here. It's the first wave of U.S.-born children to immigrants," Brewster said.

Santa Fe educators don't shy away from talking about immigration and the effects the federal and state laws have on their students.

The teachers come from varying political and ideological backgrounds, but they tend to have similar views on immigration legislation such as the DREAM Act, often telling stories about the students.

"Our philosophy is the basic belief that education is a fundamental human right rather than a privilege of citizenship," Brewster said. "It's like food, water and medical care. Others don't see it that way. We look at it as an American ideal of defending those who cannot defend themselves.

"Children are what we focus on. The nuance is about kids who didn't have a choice as opposed to adults who do have a choice."

'Weird place to be'

After House Bill 1804 was passed in 2007 to crack down on illegal immigration, forums were held at the school. The first concern among parents was their children.

"Parents were told to get an emergency plan together right away," Brewster said. "Let kids know what to do if they come home and you aren't there - where to go, who to call."

And those plans have been put to use.

"What a weird place to be in our country," Brewster said. "What do you do with a kid in school whose parents have been deported? They don't train you for that in principal school."

Teacher Marcie Escobar grew up in Oklahoma and has taught at Santa Fe South for 10 years. She was drawn to the college preparatory curriculum and the opportunity to use her foreign language skills.

About once every six months, she said, a student doesn't show up.

"I had no idea this existed - that kids are forced to live in a subculture," Escobar said. "It's wrong. It's not cool. It's not OK. We're giving their kids a good education and we can start there."

Escobar said teachers feel compelled to speak about the politics of immigration.

"This is our population, this is our reality," she said. "Unless you see it, live it and experience it, it's hard to know."

'If I had the chance'

Luis, 18, is an undocumented student who constantly questions his dedication to education.

At age 12, he spent days walking through desert and tough topography to be with his parents in Oklahoma. He spent three days before that on a bus to get to the border.

A friend of his father's helped get him into Arizona. He then spent a day waiting by a Dumpster for his parents.

"It's very difficult to be in the desert for three or four days," he said. "It's risky. It's hard."

Life since then has been one of keeping quiet and unnoticed. He claims being popular in school is discouraged.

"We know until we have papers we have to be alert and never feel safe," he said. "You never feel completely well and always take precautions. Don't pull attention to yourself with what you do. They could take you away from your family."

He continues to work on his English, struggling in conversation, but understands what is being said to him.

"The school is really making changes for me, especially the teachers who are worried about you learning English and getting good grades," he said.

Luis is not confident about immigration reforms to help him. He does not have a sponsor to apply for residency.

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