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A Message from NEA President Lily Eskelsen García

We Must Help

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.”

These words, written by Emma Lazarus and inscribed on the Statue of the Liberty, remind us that we are a nation that understands the dreams we all share, regardless of where we are from: We hope to build lives we can be proud of, contribute to our communities, and do our best for our children. We all yearn to “breathe free.”

That’s why the undocumented parents in this issue’s cover story “Fear Unfurled,” (Page 42) risked everything to come here. For these parents and their children—for the many families across America who share their struggles and fears—we must stand up for justice, fairness, and compassion. 

Daily, NEA members such as Vicente Rodriguez—an undocumented immigrant who attends the University of California, Riverside, and hopes to teach high school English one day—are doing that. As a member of the Student California Teachers Association, Vicente constantly reaches out to other future “undocu-educators,” participating in workshops and providing information. He believes they’re in a unique position to provide students with the protective, encouraging environment they need and to advocate for and inform their parents.

Vicente graduated high school in 2005 and attended community college. He paid full tuition and helped support his family, often working at mom-and-pop businesses that paid him under the table and well below the minimum wage. It was about survival.

Enrolling at UC Riverside opened his eyes: Vicente, like millions of others, lived a secret life. But he views his status in some ways as a gift that positions him to reach out to—and soothe the fears of—others. 

Like Texas students Cristal and Nicholas, who are featured in our cover story, Vicente is very familiar with the Know Your Rights cards summarizing the protections afforded immigrants under the Constitution, should Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents confront them. Vincente carries extras and distributes them liberally. 

The tragedy for those of us who work hard to unlock the potential of each and every child and keep our students’ families together is that—in the 21st century—our nation is at this point. Many of our students are constantly on edge, fearing for themselves and for their family members. They’re looking to us for help. 

We must provide it, not only by making our schools safe spaces for immigrant children and families at a time of heightened tensions and raids in their communities, but by using our political power and working with allies to bring about fundamental changes in immigration policy. Through our strength, we can breathe new life into Emma Lazarus’s powerful words. 

Lily Eskelsen García

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