I rec­og­nize the fears of im­mi­grant stu­dents. I once was one my­self.

D.C. su­per­in­ten­dent says pol­i­tics can hurt kids

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Kang Hanseul

The mother was se­ri­ous as she ap­proached the prin­ci­pal of her daugh­ter’s D.C. school. Would the prin­ci­pal con­sider be­com­ing her child’s le­gal guardian in the event she was de­ported, so her daugh­ter, a U.S. cit­i­zen, could stay in the coun­try?

It was a sur­real ques­tion but one rooted in real fear.

The po­lit­i­cal rhetoric about im­mi­gra­tion, along with high-pro­file en­force­ment ac­tions by Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment, has in­stilled pal­pa­ble anx­i­ety in im­mi­grant fam­i­lies across the coun­try, el­e­vat­ing a back­ground level of un­cer­tainty to an ur­gent con­cern. In the days af­ter an ICE raid in Las Cruces, N.M., in Fe­bru­ary, more than 2,000 stu­dents were kept home from school. A Los An­ge­les com­mu­nity is reel­ing af­ter ICE agents ar­rested a fa­ther mo­ments af­ter he dropped off his 12-year-old daugh­ter at school.

Con­fu­sion is ex­ac­er­bat­ing fear, es­pe­cially in young chil­dren, who may not fully un­der­stand the con­cepts of coun­tries, bor­ders and cit­i­zen­ship. Dur­ing a class dis­cus­sion at that

same D.C. school, a stu­dent wor­ried aloud that he’d be forced to move back to where he came from. When asked where he was from, he said Florida.

We haven’t seen any spikes in ab­sences in the District, where Mayor Muriel Bowser has af­firmed her com­mit­ment to be­ing a sanc­tu­ary city and pro­tect­ing the rights of im­mi­grant res­i­dents. But ICE ar­rested 82 peo­ple in the re­gion in a five-day sweep last month. Our schools have hosted “know your rights” work­shops and fielded ques­tions from pan­icked par­ents. At one meet­ing I at­tended, teach­ers pledged to par­ents that they would be ar­rested them­selves be­fore al­low­ing ICE of­fi­cials into the build­ing. Still, it’s hard for fam­i­lies to know whom to trust. I have some sense of what that’s like. I was born in South Korea and came to the United States when I was 7 months old, on Christ­mas Eve, 1982. When I was 16 — ex­cited to get a driver’s li­cense and ap­ply to col­lege — I learned that I was un­doc­u­mented.

In one af­ter­noon, my world turned up­side down. With all the trap­pings of a high school overachiever, I had as­sumed I could at­tend pretty much any col­lege or univer­sity. But with­out ac­cess to fed­eral fi­nan­cial aid, I might not be able to go at all. I couldn’t work, couldn’t drive, couldn’t travel out­side the coun­try. Even worse was the ter­ri­fy­ing pos­si­bil­ity that my fam­ily might be dis­cov­ered and de­ported.

My head was a mess as I tried to ab­sorb this new re­al­ity. I couldn’t fo­cus at school or cross-coun­try prac­tice. At night, I found my­self aim­lessly run­ning laps around the cul-de­sacs in my neigh­bor­hood. I trans­formed from some­one full of hope and con­fi­dence to some­one con­sumed by self-doubt and anx­i­ety. I ques­tioned whether I be­longed in the coun­try I had al­ways thought of as my own. I re­ex­am­ined all my re­la­tion­ships, wondering whom, if any­one, I could safely con­fide in.

Even­tu­ally I told my cross-coun­try coach and a few close friends. And on the day I was de­nied fi­nan­cial aid and had to turn down my Ge­orge­town ac­cep­tance, I went to my AP English teacher in tears. They each told me that they sup­ported me un­equiv­o­cally. They also apol­o­gized that there wasn’t much they could do to help. Yet the no­tion that they be­lieved in me as an in­di­vid­ual with some­thing valu­able to con­trib­ute — rather than see­ing me as some­one to be pitied, os­tra­cized or re­moved — was hugely help­ful. I was de­ter­mined to work even harder than I had be­fore, to prove that I be­longed. But I knew, too, that if the worst were to hap­pen, my grades and AP test scores and let­ters of rec­om­men­da­tion were flimsy, al­most cer­tainly mean­ing­less de­fenses.

I was also in­cred­i­bly lucky. St. Lawrence Univer­sity in Up­state New York of­fered me a pri­vate fi­nan­cial aid pack­age, so I could start col­lege. An im­mi­gra­tion spe­cial­ist in the District took up my case pro bono, and my green card was ap­proved to­ward the end of my sopho­more year — just days be­fore the trans­fer dead­line for Ge­orge­town. I went on to Har­vard Law School, served as a teacher and com­mit­ted my ca­reer to pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion. I be­came a U.S. cit­i­zen.

Through­out it all, my story — as an im­mi­grant and a child of im­mi­grants, and as a for­mer un­doc­u­mented in­di­vid­ual — has fun­da­men­tally shaped who I am and what I do. It’s fu­eled my com­mit­ment to cre­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents in low-in­come com­mu­ni­ties and from dis­ad­van­taged back­grounds.

But that pe­riod of height­ened un­cer­tainty and anx­i­ety also hurt me in a pro­found and last­ing way. In a sense, the fear of be­ing dis­cov­ered — with once po­ten­tially dis­as­trous con­se­quences — has stayed with me. Ra­tio­nally, I know that my cit­i­zen­ship can­not be re­voked. And yet I worry that peo­ple who learn about my back­ground will ques­tion my pro­fes­sional qual­i­fi­ca­tions and see me as less than Amer­i­can.

My whole adult life, I have felt the need to prove my worth and my value, to jus­tify my pres­ence in this coun­try. The drive to work as hard as I pos­si­bly can, to al­ways do more and bet­ter, has been help­ful in many ways. But it has also left me with a weight and a re­lent­less in­ter­nal voice of self-crit­i­cism — al­ways wondering if I am smart enough, ca­pa­ble enough, do­ing enough fast enough.

These kinds of doubts can be ex­haust­ing and de­mo­ti­vat­ing over time and can have a real im­pact on men­tal health. For ex­am­ple, high-achiev­ing col­lege stu­dents from mi­nor­ity back­grounds re­port higher rates of de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety than their white peers, in part based on the self-doubt that can be trig­gered by dis­crim­i­na­tion.

That is my con­cern about the im­pact of this lat­est shift in rhetoric and pol­icy on im­mi­grants: that as a coun­try we will con­vey, es­pe­cially to our stu­dents, that we ques­tion their value and their abil­i­ties. Not only is that mes­sage de­hu­man­iz­ing, but it dis­cour­ages the tal­ent and leadership we need to con­tinue to thrive as a na­tion. Even as many have spo­ken out in sup­port of pre­serv­ing De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals, I worry that in ad­vo­cat­ing for a small ex­cep­tion to U.S. im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy — al­beit for young peo­ple in a uniquely vul­ner­a­ble po­si­tion, those who came to the United States with­out le­gal doc­u­men­ta­tion, or who fell out of le­gal sta­tus, as chil­dren — we miss the broader value of im­mi­grants to our coun­try.

Ed­u­ca­tors can be an im­por­tant source of sup­port for stu­dents and their fam­i­lies. They were for me. But it should not fall on an in­di­vid­ual prin­ci­pal or teacher to pro­tect a child or a fam­ily from im­mi­gra­tion en­force­ment, and no par­ent should have to ask them to. We have to do bet­ter for our stu­dents and for our na­tion. Hanseul Kang is the state su­per­in­ten­dent of ed­u­ca­tion for the District of Columbia.


Hanseul Kang, the District’s su­per­in­ten­dent of ed­u­ca­tion, rec­og­nizes stu­dents on D.C. Col­lege Sign­ing Day last month. As a teenager, Kang found out that she was an un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grant.

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