By Luis Javier Pentón Herrera, M.Ed., M.S., M.Ed.
When I arrived to school that morning I saw and heard something that struck me very hard. I saw my students taking pictures together and telling each other that they had to take those pictures as “going away” memories before they got sent back to their countries. My heart sunk in sadness and pain, as I stood there helpless and hopeless. I was not prepared to discuss this topic with my students but I knew I had to learn how; I needed to help them fast.
In this discussion, I reflect on my personal and professional experience as an English as a Second Language (ESL) educator teaching undocumented Hispanic immigrant ESL students. In particular, I focus on ESL students from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, as they represent the majority of undocumented Hispanic ESL students in American classrooms (Zong & Batalova, 2015).
The majority of the current newcomer population in the United States is comprised of students from Spanish-speaking countries (NCES, 2016; Payán & Nettles, 2007), specifically from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador (Zong & Batalova, 2015). Statistics show that there have been an increasing number of immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in recent years, and much of that population has settled in the states of California, Texas, Florida and Maryland (Zong & Batalova, 2015). Considering the increasing numbers of immigrants from these three specific Central American countries, surprisingly limited attention is paid to the reasons behind this mass migration.
El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala “have become virtually war zones where lives seem to be expendable and millions live in constant terror at what gang members or public security forces can do to them or their loved ones” (Amnesty International, 2016). The violence, war, and vandalism present in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have affected the lives of all the immigrants from those countries in one way or another. In particular, the immigrant children arrive to the United States with academic, personal and physical scars that cannot easily be forgotten.
Many of the undocumented Hispanic immigrant ESL students from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala arrive to American classrooms with academic challenges that go beyond learning the English language. Pentón Herrera & Duany (2016) explain that many students from this growing ESL population—identified as binate language learners in their article—are illiterate or have underdeveloped proficiency in Spanish. These academic realities reflect the students’ circumstances in their native countries, where many of them did not attend school or stopped going at an early age for fear of getting killed. In addition to this, many of these students arrive with personal stories that no living being should experience, let alone a child. Many of them have seen friends and family members killed with their own eyes, do not have immediate family members, and wear the physical scars of the never-ending violence in their countries.
These real stories and scenarios are happening all across El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala; and yet, these students are referred to as immigrants instead of refugees. These students are the protagonists of one of the world’s least visible refugee crises (Amnesty International, 2016). When they arrive to the United States, many continue overcoming barriers that keep them from attending school. Identifying and acknowledging this student population as “refugees” instead of “immigrants” is the first step towards understanding their life and offering the academic and social support they need. Addressing this particular population of students as “refugees” is the best opportunity we have, as a society, to finally humanize them.
Forces Impacting Students’ Lives
There are different forces that may keep this particular population of students from attending schools at any level (K-12 or Higher Education). Some of these forces are: (a) Immigration status, (b) politics, (c) problems in the household/Income, (d) uncertainty about their future, (d) lack of opportunities for further education, (e) society, and (f) individuals within their school system. These forces act as barriers that keep students from becoming successful in school and from focusing only on achieving excellence in education.
These forces have been present throughout President Obama’s presidency and can only intensify during President Trump’s time in office. These factors, combined with unrealistic academic expectations and unsupportive instruction, have contributed to the current education gap among Hispanic immigrant students and other race groups in the country (Haskins & Tienda, 2011). The figure below briefly explains the impact these forces have in these students’ academic experiences. I chose these forces and explanations based on my personal and professional experiences. I have worked with this population of students for many years and I have experienced these realities first-hand.
The problem with perpetuating illiteracy in our society is that eventually it will affect all of us. This population of students will become adults and will eventually have children who are American-born citizens. These children will grow up in a low-income household with illiterate parents who have no academic or economic means to support their children’s education. This cycle of poverty and illiteracy has becomes part of the American culture and, in years to come, it will continue to expand to a greater scale.
Teachers – Supporting Students
Teachers have, more than ever, an opportunity and a responsibility to teach tolerance, respect, and resilience to this vulnerable population of students. After the elections, I have heard many times that my students want to leave school because they feel unsafe and they think that agents from the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will come to get them at any time. Fear takes over their faces every time someone knocks at our classroom door during instruction because they always expect the worst. My students, like many other students in the same situation and different grade levels around the country, feel unsafe, in despair, and do not see a reason of how education can be beneficial to them. In their minds, many think, “Why am I studying if I will get deported anytime soon?”
The reality is that students worry about getting deported because they do not have anything to go back to in their countries. Many students have sought refuge in the United States running away from murderers, rapists, dealers, and violence. Some have shared that going back to their native countries will mean a certain death to their family and to them. As I hear these stories and I see my students’ despair and fear, only one question comes to mind, “What can I do to help them?”
Since the elections, I have learned to modify my learning style to meet my students’ social and emotional needs. My students need a place where they feel safe, included, appreciated, and where they have a reason and an opportunity to voice their opinion. In my classroom, I offer them the opportunity to feel part of a community where everyone is equal and where we can all engage in civil, respectful, and enlightening discussions. In my classes, I have learned to include activities and conversations where my students feel empowered to be great and to flourish in these difficult times, and where they do not think of themselves as victims.
Educators of undocumented Hispanic immigrant ESL students are at the frontlines of the battle against illiteracy and school dropout. As such, it is not enough to become advocates for our students; we need to be informed advocates. I have found support and information through community and non-profit organizations that offer direct support to this population. Furthermore, I have shared and informed my students about their rights, and what they can do to seek help and become proactive. Also, I have worked with other school personnel to offer space for students to talk about their feelings and their vision for their future. These conversation circles, or support groups, have proven highly effective and have acted as a net of support for students and school personnel alike through these challenging times.
As an ESL teacher educating a vulnerable student population in the Trump era, I have found knowledge and education to be the best approaches to combat my students’ uncertain future. As a former English Language Learner (ELL) myself, I remember the importance of resilience in developing a sense of personal improvement and academic achievement. I often talk to my students about my life experiences in hopes of instilling in them the strength to stay in school during these difficult times. The most difficult times are yet to come for my ESL students and for all undocumented Hispanic immigrant ESL students in the United States. However, the solution cannot be silence. I believe that talking about Trump and what he represents for my students’ future is a healthy approach to coping with this reality that is not going away. As an ESL educator and a strong advocate for my students’ rights, I believe teaching my students literacy, content knowledge, and resilience is the best practice to keeping my students in school.
Amnesty International. (2016). Central America turns its back on hundreds of thousands fleeing
“war-like” violence. Retrieved from https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/10/central-america-turns-its-back-on-hundreds-of-thousands-fleeing-war-like-violence/
Haskins, R., & Tienda, M. (2011). The future of immigrant children. Future of Children, pp. 1-7.
National Center for Education Statistics. (NCES). (2016). English Language Learners in public schools. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgf.asp
Payán, R. M. & Nettles, M. T. (2007). Current State of English-Language Learners in the U.S.:
K-12 student population. Retrieved from https://www.ets.org/Media/Conferences_and_Events/pdf/ELLsympsium/ELL_factsheet.pdf
Pentón Herrera, L. J. & Duany, M. (2016). Native Spanish speakers as binate language learners. NECTFL Review, 78, pp. 15-30.
Toledo-López, A. A. & Pentón Herrera, L. J. (2016). The impact of bilingual education in the professional development of Hispanic women. Ámbito de Encuentros Journal, 9(2), pp. 25-49.
Santiago, D. A., Taylor, M., & Calderón Galdeano, E. (2015). Finding your workforce: Latinos in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). ¡Excelencia in Education! Retrieved from http://www.edexcelencia.org/research/workforce/stem
Zong, J. & Batalova, J. (2015). Central American Immigrants in the United States. Migration
Policy Institute. Retrieved from http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-american-immigrants-united-states
Luis Javier Pentón Herrera is currently a high school ESOL teacher and an adjunct professor at different colleges and universities where he teaches Spanish, TESOL, Research, and English classes. His current research focuses on Bilingual Education, Spanish, ESL/ESOL, Adult Education, Literacy Studies, and Hispanic Pedagogues.
Author Correspondence: Luis.firstname.lastname@example.org