Deportation of Wis. eighth-grader reveals immigration policy's painful side to class
GREEN BAY, Wisconsin (The Compass) - Students at St. Bernard School learned about the painful realities of illegal immigration recently when one of their classmates was deported to Mexico.
A phone call to the school from Miriam’s mother, notifying them that Miriam was not returning to school, was the only notification the school received, said Renee Dercks-Engels, a teacher at St. Bernard.
“It was after Christmas, right around the time when (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) had a few raids around here,” she said. “They were targeting different businesses.”
Dercks-Engels said Miriam’s sudden departure was difficult for students to understand. For most of them, immigration issues were only subjects discussed in textbooks and on television.
Questions and answers
Knowing that students had questions, Dercks-Engels, contacted Laurie Martinez, an immigration counselor at Catholic Charities, who agreed to talk to students.
Martinez, whose daughter, Larissa, is a sixth grader at St. Bernard, spoke to more than 100 students in grades six, seven and eight on April 25.
Four of Miriam’s eighth-grade classmates spoke to The Compass May 1 about her departure and the circumstances surrounding it.
“For me it was kind of difficult,” said Jasmin Torres. “This is my first year here and she was like the only person I knew when I got here. It just made it a lot harder coming to school without her.”
Elle Bellisle attended St. Philip the Apostle School with Miriam before it closed two years ago. “When it closed down we came here,” she said. “She was like the only one I hung out with.”
When she heard Miriam was in Mexico, added Bellisle, “I thought she was on vacation.”
Her reaction was typical for students who don’t know about the deportation of undocumented immigrants, said Dercks-Engels. “They don’t understand the dynamics. That’s why we brought in the speaker.”
As an immigration counselor for Catholic Charities, Martinez said she speaks to church and civic groups about immigration issues, but it was the first time she spoke to young students.
Martinez discussed the immigration process, types of immigration, the length of time it takes for people to gain permanent residency, and the consequences of bypassing the legal process.
Because the wait for permanent residency can take years, sometimes decades, some people enter the country illegally, students learned.
“I didn’t know it took like 14 years or longer” to apply for residency, said Collin Marshall. “I didn’t know how hard it could be to get visas. (Martinez) talked about the asylum immigrants, and I had no clue about that, how they are coming to the U.S. because they are fearing persecution in their country.”
“The main thing they want is for their family to come to the U.S. and (often) it takes a lot of time or doesn’t even happen,” added Connor Gindt.
When policy hits families
For Torres, who is Hispanic, the immigration issue hit close to home.
“At the same time Miriam left, one of my dad’s sister’s husband got deported, too,” she said. “It’s really hard for us. It was really unexpected.
“They just came in his house one day and took him and left a card saying call this number if they wanted to know more,” she continued.
“I understand that he like did something wrong when he crossed the border, but taking him away from his family and taking everything he worked hard for, I think that’s messed up.”
Her aunt and cousins have since moved to Mexico.
“My aunt had to sell her house and her car to get money to go to Mexico,” said Torres. “They worked so hard for everything and one day they just lose everything. My cousins went to school one day and they come home and their dad is not there any more. I think they should do something to fix that. If they are going to take one person, they might as well take the whole family so they can be together.”
Torres said she intends to learn more about immigration issues.
“Since my parents are citizens, I never thought it could affect me,” she said. “I never imagined I would be (affected), and one day it’s like bam. That’s when everything started to get more personal. Now I’m a lot more concerned. I’m trying to get more into it.”
A teachable moment
According to Kay Franz, St. Bernard principal, the school’s demographics have changed since the closure of St. Philip School. Hispanic enrollment has jumped from 20 students two years ago to 30 last year and 36 this year. The school has an enrollment of 395 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Franz and Dercks-Engels said Miriam’s departure was a teachable moment for the school.
“It makes us more aware of the needs of the community and how the kids can respond to helping out one another,” said Franz.
“We just started touching on the subject because this is new for all of us,” said Dercks-Engels. “Honestly, as adults we think we know what’s going on, but once it impacts (students) and when it’s so personal, we realized how much we had to bring it to them.”
It was an opportunity not just to talk about immigration issues, she added, but to reflect on what the Christian response should be.
As a result of Miriam’s departure, the middle school students decided to donate their school Mass collections for two weeks to the diocese’s Hispanic Ministry Office. “We are trying to be a little pro-active, but it’s all new to us,” added Dercks-Engels.
This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of The Compass (www.thecompassnews.org), official newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay,Wis.
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