Undocumented children need support

Giving parents access to state IDs is right thing to do for kids

EVERY DAY MY morning routine includes flipping the lights on and turning on my shower faucet. I often take for granted this access to electricity, running water, and a warm bed I have in my studio apartment in East Boston. Thousands across the city live day-to-day without these basic amenities and undocumented immigrants are disproportionately represented within this population. Growing up in this environment is traumatic. Without their basic needs being met, it is nearly impossible for this subset of students to achieve academically.

I teach English as a second language to fifth graders in one of the most linguistically diverse districts in Massachusetts. More than 15 countries and six languages are represented in my classroom alone. Each day, I face students with a variety of immigration statuses. Jose immigrated from a Central American country just last May. Overwhelmed by the difficulties of the transition, he refused for two months to speak with me and other teachers. Eventually, he overcame his shyness and this year, I have been amazed by Jose’s drive to acquire English vocabulary and phonics skills. He has been communicative and eager to learn. I was heart-broken when this timid, hardworking student and his family were displaced from their home because their landlord discovered they were undocumented.

As a school community, we struggled to find solutions for Jose and his family. Our school counselor reached out to local religious organizations and other non-profits in the area, but most were already at capacity or were not willing to take in undocumented immigrants. Jose was able to find temporary housing with a family friend, but these short-term solutions are not sustainable for him and others in a similar position. This inconsistency in basic needs being met makes it difficult for Jose and other students like him to think critically and engage in our classroom tasks. He will likely be displaced again, and next time, he may not be as lucky to find a place to stay. All of this is likely to affect his ability to learn and succeed in school.

Not only are undocumented immigrants excluded from receiving support through federal programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), they can also be excluded from admittance to local shelters. Leaving children and families on the street due to their immigration status is not acceptable and not humane.

Undocumented immigrants are barred from job opportunities, housing, and homeless shelters because they do not have the ability to apply for identification. Although there are currently 14 states that allow undocumented immigrants to apply for a state ID card, Massachusetts has yet to pass such legislation.

There is some hope, however; a bill currently pending in the Legislature, “The Work and Family Mobility Act,” would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for a standard state driver’s license. The passage of the bill could be a monumental benefit for the undocumented population in Massachusetts. Other states are following suit; a similar motion was supported by the Grand Rapids school board in Michigan. Possession of a state ID would open doors for immigrants, allowing them to have additional access to opportunity and support.

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I would like to say that Jose’s is the only experience of this kind I have had as a teacher, but unfortunately, it is not the first and will not be the last. There are thousands of undocumented students and families directly impacted by their lack of access to support and programs and their inability to attain identification defines their opportunity in our state and country. State and federal legislation needs to reflect this nation’s acceptance of immigrants and reflect the belief that students like Jose and their families are part of our society and educational system.  The Work and Family Mobility Act should be enacted to ensure that all students, regardless of immigration status and country of origin, can have their basic needs fulfilled.

Kayla Scholl is a fifth grade teacher in the Everett Public Schools and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alumna.