South Tucson community members combat negative effects of immigration

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Editor’s note: Immigration has been a political boondoggle for at least two decades in the United States. Congress has yet to come up with a system that will successfully address the complexities, and President Trump has taken some decisions into his own hands. This is one in a series of stories examining how real people are affected.

Eighth in a series

TUCSON, Ariz. — Immigration is a national issue affecting more than just politics. In the city of South Tucson, community members have come together to address the issues that most directly impact them.

School board member Kristel Foster discusses the struggles facing a school district with a high population of students learning English as a second language. (Dani Jardine)

Tucson and its smaller neighbor South Tucson have a heavily immigrant population. The Tucson Unified School District — which encompasses both Tucson and South Tucson — has about 4,000 students learning English as a second language out of about 5,000 total students, according to school board member Kristel Foster.

Prior to working on the school board, Foster taught elementary school for several years. She said her school district faces a severe lack of funding. According to Foster, her school district is one of the lowest-funded school systems in the nation.

Aside from funding, the English learning program in place is one of the largest struggles the Tucson school district faces.

Because of the heavy immigrant population, English learning programs play a large role in the area; but the current program is believed to be a disservice to the students.

Tucson Unified School District students complete forms at the beginning of the school year determining what language is used in the home. If the student indicates a language other than English as the predominate language in the home, they are required to participate in English learning programs.

Foster said despite many studies suggesting other methods, the current model attempts to teach students English in one year.

“Currently we use a four-hour, structured learning model, where the students spend four hours of their day learning English,” Foster said. “But what that means is they’re separated from native English speakers for the majority of their day.”

Foster said students trying to learn English spend the majority of their day with other native Spanish speakers and this separation has led some students to refer to certain school hallways as “Little Mexico” because that’s the area where Spanish-speaking students congregate.

Foster said this level of separation not only hinders the English learning process but also harms the student dynamic.

“If you’re mandated to be together for four hours everyday, and you all speak Spanish then you’re actually not learning a single word of English,” Foster said. “It’s really stopped learners and worse, it’s segregated them.”

Teachers and principals in the area also have to deal with what Foster described as “immigration-related trauma.”

Many students have parents or other family members who immigrated to the U.S. recently — either legally or illegally — or they, themselves, have recently immigrated. Often these students have family members still living in Mexico. This dynamic can cause serious trauma, especially when paired with recent dialogue surrounding immigration, according to Foster.

“In the 2016 elections, there were kids just absolutely in fear of everything,” she said. “We had to stop and talk about how everything was going to be OK, as if it were a 9/11-type situation. They were just terrified from what people were saying.”

Foster said this rhetoric can have severe impacts on a student’s identity and “harms their self worth.”

She described an incident with one former student of hers who had posted on Facebook asking friends what they would remember about him if he died in a car accident or was deported.

“In his mind, dying in a car accident is the same as being deported: his life ends,” Foster said. “And he is living with this everyday that this could happen at any moment — he could be deported.”

Foster described another situation where a first-grade student drew a picture of her uncle who, while crossing the desert from Mexico, fell asleep next to a cactus and never woke up.

Stories and situations like these are not uncommon, according to Foster. Students are intimately involved in the worst aspects of immigration issues.

In an attempt to address issues of trauma, many teachers in the area are taught methods to help students cope, and some schools provide counseling.

In South Tucson, community members have created a safe haven in the area to help underserved and at-risk students.

The Primavera Foundation initially started as a program to feed homeless people in the area, but has since grown into a multifaceted and multi-property shelter.

Alonzo Morado explains how the Primavera Foundation has expanded its goals to benefit the community. (Dani Jardine)

Alonzo Morado has worked for the Primavera Foundation for over four years. He said the foundation tries to make it a safe place for the students who are dealing with immigration-related traumas.

He said many of the kids served at Primavera Foundation are “latchkey kids” with under-involved parents and no place to turn.

“We decided to open up an after-school program. We’ve been making sure we can feed and educate the kids, and we help them with all their homework. That way they don’t fall behind,” Morado said.

He said he believes education is essential to helping kids out of poverty and is the one thing no one can take from them.

Morado said many of the people who need help the most — the undocumented — are afraid to go to the Primavera Foundation because they are afraid they might get deported.

Morada said the foundation battles anti-immigrant rhetoric that pushes undocumented people further underground and makes them hard to reach. For those people, Morado tries to be as open and understanding as possible.

“We talk to them and let them know that we’re here to serve anyone that needs assistance. We want them to know this is a safe place where they can come for help, for food, for a place to sleep.”

Former Police Chief Michael Ford said Primavera Foundation is a sort of heart for the community.

“I think there’s a myriad of services provided here and they all focus on serving the community. People know that Primavera is about them, it’s for them and so they rely on it,” Ford said.

The relationship between the local police force and the community is an integral part to creating a safe and friendly atmosphere in South Tucson.

“It makes all the difference in the world to have a police department that is focused on keeping the community safe, rather than being separate,” Morado said. “They understand the mentality of serving the community, its way of making sure that everyone feels a part of the community, everyone feels home.”

Ford said as a police chief his most important title was “friend.” He focused on creating positive relationships with all community members, especially the kids, so they all knew he was someone they could turn to.

Morado said South Tucson is unique because it prioritizes a sense of family and community more than anything else.

He shared a story of a local school that was at risk of being shut down as a result of low funding. When the community heard the school might close, people came together to save it because parents and teachers knew it was important.

“Sometimes we need a kick in the butt, a reminder for the parents to stay involved in their kids’ schools but when people are willing to fight for their schools to stay open, I think it helps create a sense of identity,” Morado said.

He said when families, teachers, government and police come together regardless of their immigrant or citizenship status to create a strong community, the result is a sense of family and safety that helps people survive no matter what.

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