A juxtaposition of bravery and shame. Of fortitude and righteous indignation. Of beauty and horror. All before 8 on a Monday morning, as Carmela Hernandez sought to do what so many mothers and families across the city do each morning: send her children to school.
Carmela and her four children took sanctuary in the Church of the Advocate in late 2017, seeking shelter and protection from deportation. Her petition for asylum, as she risked everything to escape from drug cartels who were responsible for murdering her family members, was denied. Perhaps ICE thought their plight not worthy of sanctuary. Perhaps their skin was too brown, their English too broken.
So Carmela did what I imagine many mothers might do: everything she could to protect those most precious to her.
I was honored to stand with Carmela's family as they first took sanctuary at the Church of the Advocate and were welcomed with open arms by the Rev. Renee McKenzie, who declared their sanctuary as an act of revolutionary love. When the team at New Sanctuary Movement, a remarkable immigrant-rights advocacy organization, shared the news that the children were now, six weeks later, embarking on a journey to Philadelphia's schools, I was struck once again by the Hernandez family's courage.
On a cold January morning, Carmela's children stepped over the threshold of the Church of the Advocate. Carmela stood back, tears welling up, unable to even walk her children outside for fear of an ICE arrest. And though their bravery is remarkable, it should also serve as a stark reminder of just how much we expect from immigrant families and people of color.
As an educator, a parent, and a person, I am ashamed that Carmela must be so brave in scenarios that so many of us take for granted. I am ashamed that Carmela watched from a distance as we escorted her children into the van waiting to take them to school. I am ashamed that her four children, having experienced unthinkable trauma throughout this ordeal, had to experience their first day of school under a cloud of "what ifs." What if no matter what support we show the family, no matter how badly we want their freedom, ICE's reach is still too brazen, its grip too strong?
It is unconscionable that the politics of vitriol, xenophobia, and racism has prevented the passage of a clean DREAM Act, a legislative acknowledgement that we have an obligation to support families and communities.
In both my role as a classroom teacher and my role as a staff representative for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, I see no issue more important than fighting for the society that our children deserve. It should be nonnegotiable that every single child has the right to a fair and equitable public education. But unfortunately, our legislative agenda too often matches an agenda that marginalizes people of color.
Carmela and her family should not have to be so brave. They should not have to continue to prove their worth. Their humanity should be enough. The PFT will continue to stand with Carmela and with the other families across our diverse city. It is our honor, as educators, to embrace our communities and to advocate for the children we teach every day. We haven't gotten it right for Carmela yet. But we will.