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AFT, UFT educators hit wall in border visit

New York Teacher
AFT representatives wearing blue AFT shirts with border agents in uniform

AFT members, including UFT Secretary LeRoy Barr (right), were threatened with arrest by armed border patrol agents (in background) for refusing to leave after being denied entry to an immigration detention center in Texas.

Armed border patrol agents on Aug. 16 called in the police and threatened to arrest a contingent of UFT and AFT officers and members armed with school supplies when they refused to leave after being denied entry to an immigration detention center in McAllen, Texas.

The group, led by AFT President Randi Weingarten and UFT/AFT Vice President Evelyn DeJesus, had arrived at the center for a scheduled tour to check on the educational services being provided to the migrant children only to be told that the visit had been canceled at the last minute following a U.S. government ruling that the AFT “had no standing to tour the facility and see the children.”

DeJesus led the group in a prayer vigil in the 103-degree heat after being denied entry. “Speaking as a mother and grandmother, I am upset and angry,” she told the others. “We have the compassion, we have the heart, we have the means and we want to go in, but they are denying us that.”

Border patrol agents called in tow trucks and threatened to remove the three vans that had brought the union activists to the site.

Keith Santos, a teacher at the Bushwick Eductional Campus in Brooklyn, described the standoff as “very disturbing.”

“We were standing peacefully outside when the police arrived,” he said. “It was upsetting to find we had no standing as educators to check on the children, and it made us wonder what was going on inside,” said Santos. Arthur Goldstein, a teacher at Forest Hills HS in Queens, said he thought of his immigrant students “who told me stories of fleeing after family members were murdered, kidnapped or both.”

As they left the site, Goldstein said he wondered, “What were the children doing back there? Were they being fed? Were they being taught? Were they getting adequate care?”

Fearing the escalation of threats, the union activists boarded their vans and took their school supplies, children’s gift bags and boxes of clothing requested by the detained immigrant families to a post-detention relief center run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

There, they met with some of the migrants who had been released. Before beginning their cross-country journeys to new beginnings, the migrants were receiving 24-hour temporary shelter, legal information, a hot meal and a warm shower, supplies and envelopes explaining: “I don’t speak English, please help me. I am headed for ...”

“Our broken hearts were blessed by the opportunity to share smiles, hugs and resources with the beautiful people we met,” UFT Vice President Janella Hinds said of the meeting.

The contingent also met high school students who volunteer at the center. Those students, said Hinds, spoke of how gratifying the work is and how important the center is in providing a “human touch.”