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Immigrant families get rock star treatment on the first day back to school in Memphis

welcome-to-school-spanishEmerging from the shadows since federal agents raided several Latino neighborhoods in Memphis, immigrant families were greeted Monday by cheering neighbors and educators as they brought their children back to school amid assurances of protection.

Holding signs such as “Bienvenido” and “Every Student is Welcome,” clusters of people gathered at the entrances of about 25 Memphis schools with large Hispanic student populations on the first day of class. The welcomings were organized by church leaders and Latino Memphis, an advocacy group for the city’s growing Hispanic population.

“They welcome us. They support us. And we are not alone in this neighborhood,” said a mother named Aura after she dropped off her children at Brewster Elementary School, where about 30 people greeted the families.

Speaking in Spanish with the help of a translator, Aura described how she had been afraid to leave her house during the waning weeks of summer break after the arrests in Memphis of about 15 immigrants by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. While targeting immigrants with criminal history, ICE officials also were arresting immigrants who were residing in the United States without authorization.

Leaders of Shelby County Schools have assured parents they can bring their children to school without fear of arrest. They’ve also dispatched workers to apartment complexes where arrests were made to tell families that the district does not share their personal information with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

At Brewster on opening day, principal Angela Askew said the school still had not heard from up to 75 Hispanic students expected to return this year. Though lagging school registration is a chronic challenge in Memphis, the ICE arrests appear to have exacerbated the problem at the Binghamton neighborhood school, where Hispanics comprise about one-fifth of the student population.

“We drove around the neighborhoods that week telling people it’s OK for them to come in,” Askew said. “They were afraid to come, which is understandable.”

Monday’s informal welcoming events offered a message counter to the raids, which have increased nationwide under the administration of President Donald Trump.

“Many Latino families have gone through a tough past couple of weeks after immigration agents targeted their neighborhoods,” Latino Memphis said in a statement announcing the effort. “…We want you to join us to make sure ALL students feel safe and welcome at their school.”

Last year in Shelby County Schools, Hispanic students made up 12 percent of enrollment, and that percentage is expected to rise.

Organizations such as Comunidades Unidas en Una Voz have been holding trainings for Hispanic families to know what to do in case an ICE agent comes to their home or if a family member is arrested.

Cristina Condori, an organizer with the group, said Monday’s turnout from community members should help ease the minds of families wary of bringing their children to school.

“It’s very important, this act,” she said. “They can receive support from the community that says all immigrants are welcome in this country.”

LAURA FAITH KEBEDE, the author of this article, writes for Chalkbeat Inc., a nonprofit news organization committed to covering one of America’s most important stories: the effort to improve schools for all children, especially those who have historically lacked access to a quality education. Tennessee is one of about five areas the organization currently covers. For more information, visit chalkbeat.com/tn. Contact Kebede at lkebede@chalkbeat.org.

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