DURHAM, North Carolina.– The morning Teresa* saw immigration agents patrolling her street, she had made a list of emergency contacts that her husband and children could call in case she was arrested or deported for living undocumented in the U.S. for the past 14 years.
“I said to myself: I have to leave contact numbers for them. If it’s my husband they arrest, I know who to call. I have the numbers stored on my phone, but they won’t know who to contact. I told my daughter: ‘If something happens, don’t get scared. Just call these people and they will know what to do for me; how to help me’,” said Teresa, who was born in Puebla, Mexico.
She placed the list by the entrance door, alongside family pictures, and left the house around 8:30 a.m. to drop the kids at school.
Right before starting the car to leave, Teresa recognized a black van; the kind Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents use to patrol in North Carolina. “I tried not to alarm the kids, but my daughter is 14 and it’s nearly impossible to fool her. I told them: ‘That car looks suspicious. Let’s get out of the car on the opposite side, where they can’t see. Let’s get into the house until I figure out what to do’,” she recalled.
All three of them got inside and Teresa didn’t dare to leave the house for the next two weeks.
“We locked ourselves in. I didn’t leave the house at all and my husband didn’t go to work the following day. To eat, we ordered out. We had heard before that ICE was doing patrols in Durham, but it had never felt like they were hunting people, hunting us,” Teresa said.
ICE agents ran a special operation in Durham and other six North Carolina counties that are not collaborating with federal policies to detain immigrants. Within three days, ICE officers arrested more than 225 people, according to the agency. Still, official reports don’t detail how many of those were in the country illegally, or how many were deported.
The same week, parents and teachers at the elementary school of Teresa's son created a Whatsapp group to maintain communication and help undocumented parents who did not dare to take their kids to school. Much to Teresa’s surprise, many of the volunteers were, U.S.-born whites.
“American parents gave my son a ride and took my daughter to school. In that moment, I felt protected and very grateful to be surrounded by people like them. But as days go by, I think to myself: If we want to live here, we can’t lock ourselves away the whole time.”
Abby, a 42-year-old New Yorker, helped Teresa. She recently moved with her family to Durham, running away from the cold New York winters, and with the idea to build “a new South”, less racist than in old times. When asked why she helped Teresa, Abby’s answer was: “How would I not?”
“I have a car, a legal status…What good are those if my son’s friends are afraid? How much can you trust, how desperate does one need to be to let a stranger take your kids to school?” said Abby. “We are building trust. ‘They’ are ‘us’. We are one community. These are our friends, our neighbors. We share the city, the streets, the schools. Helping them is our responsibility.”
Abby thinks that the balance must shift among those who take such risks. She also thinks that more citizens, legal residents, should act, take big or small actions, rally to deal with the current situation and build the future society.
“My husband is black, and we’re used to being attacked. Also, I’m Jewish. My ancestors hid because they were afraid. Had more people helped them, I would have had more relatives alive. Migrants are not only people who hide; they are smart people I want to have by my side,” she said.
Abby’s husband is also a professor, teaching English as a second language. Since early February, he calls to the homes of illegal students before school is over, to make sure their parents are still home.
An increasing number of American parents write to Durham’s teachers at this elementary school, to join as volunteers in this Whatsapp group. One of them, father of a third grader, is a migration lawyer and coordinated a talk at the school cafeteria to answer questions and give advice to illegal parents as to what they should do if ICE knocks on their doors or arrests them in the street.
Avilamar Bastidas is also an immigrant, from Venezuela. She knows by heart the names of each kid and their parents whom she has met in Durham over the past 20 years. She works as an interpreter and liaison between the county’s public-school department and the Hispanic community.
She says that this parent-teacher collaboration that originated spontaneously at this elementary school as result of the raids is not common. Not even in schools with a higher Hispanic student attendance and with even more pressing needs.
“I visit schools in which 50% of the population is Latino, yet the administration and the staff lack the willpower to help. In those other schools you won’t find the support and collaboration these parents, teacher and neighbors have created via Whatsapp to help,” Bastidas said.
Some schools in Durham have up to 380 Latino students, but only one Hispanic teacher. “And there is not enough support for the Hispanic population in those schools. Not because teaches don’t want to give their support, but because they cannot keep up with the needs.”
Bastidas is particularly concerned for two Hispanic kids who have stopped attending school. One of them is a sixth-grade girl who did not want to go back to school after her father was deported. The second case involves two sisters who miss weeks of school every time their mom must go to immigration court in another state.
Among the hardship that Hispanic students are facing, of parents with or without legal status, Bastidas trusts that sometime in the future, the situation will be more balanced. “I feel that tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, when we are old, I’ll be happy to see our faces in more than half of the population in this country, occupying positions to which we have no rights today.”
* Teresa is a pseudonym. The source in this story explicitly requested to remain anonymous for fear of being identified and arrested by immigration authorities.