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Educators Resist East Tennessee ICE Raid

Local school, church and nonprofit staff members gathered to protest an immigration raid at a local meat packing plant—and to support the children of detained workers.

April 5, 2018, was a devastating day for scores of families in Grainer and Hamblen Counties, Tennessee. Nearly 100 employees of Southeastern Provision, a local meat-packing plant, were arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in what immigration rights activists are speculating may be the largest workplace raid since the George W. Bush administration.

The event was terrifying on a number of levels. It was terrifying for the workers, for their families and for undocumented people all over the United States who watched it happen—and knew it could easily happen to them.

The circumstances behind the raid include allegations of fraud and tax evasion on the part of the plant’s owners, but that’s not what galvanized the local community in the wake of the mass arrests. In a state where the state legislature is preparing to debate bills that would prohibit cities from adopting sanctuary status and make ID laws more stringent, many residents threw their support behind these workers and their families, people they have lived and worked alongside for years and, in some cases, decades. Visible among their ranks? Local educators, nonprofit leaders and church members who volunteered their time to feed frightened children, support devastated family members and express vocal opposition to the raid outside the local immigration intake office.

The response was swift and unhesitating and brought together individuals from many walks of life who had many different relationships to those arrested. But spurring their choice to take action was a common belief that their community had experienced a deep injustice. The individuals who were arrested were taken completely by surprise with no opportunity to make any arrangements for their children, doing cruel and unnecessary harm to working families, particularly some of the youngest and most vulnerable members of the community.

In an effort to generate support for these reeling families, the Nashville-based advocacy organization Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) sent an email to teachers county wide asking for their help; 122 showed up to provide comfort and to administer basic needs to hundreds of traumatized children. (While the exact number of children is not known, it has been reported that as many as 600 did not attend school the day after the raid.)

“This raid drew a line in the sand for many people,” TIRR’s Co-executive Director Stephanie Teatro told Rewire.News. “The majority of people … don’t think you should be able to storm into a factory where their neighbors have worked for 15 years, leave kids without parents, and leave families devastated.”

The raid on Southeastern Provision isn’t just a signal to undocumented immigrants that ICE activity is on the rise; it’s a moment for educators everywhere to pause and think about what their own reactions would be if such a raid affected the families they work with. It is an opportunity to ask critical questions like, “Who are we as a community?” “How do we show that we value people from different backgrounds?” “What is my responsibility when I see injustice?” “How can I resist injustice and stand with the people affected?”

The time to ask these questions and to talk to your colleagues is now, and there are plenty of resources to help get the conversation started.

Immigrant and Refugee Children: A Guide for Educators and School Support Staff was originally published by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and reprinted with permission by Teaching Tolerance. It includes information on raids and guidance on actions staff can take in and outside of school.

Immigration ICE Raids: End the Detention and Deportation of Students and Families is an AFT web package that includes sample resolutions and resources for educators.

Supporting Students From Immigrant Families is a comprehensive web package from Teaching Tolerance that includes resources for serving English language learners, classroom and school climate resources all aimed at making schools welcoming, supportive spaces for immigrant children and their families.

Our hats are off to the educators of Grainer and Hamblen Counties who stepped up when the children of their community needed them. Let them be an inspiration to us all.

van der Valk is the deputy director for Teaching Tolerance.