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-de-sacs 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.