Interview: Immigrant communities overcoming COVID challenges

I began my career as a bilingual ESL teacher in a large high school in Miami. Many of my students had recently immigrated from Central America or the Carribean, crossing oceans, deserts, and borders for a shot at realizing their dreams. They were smart, driven, and many were growing up too quickly, taking on the responsibilities of translating for their parents, caring for younger siblings and navigating new, sometimes unwelcoming systems. Most were poor, many were undocumented, but all had taken big risks in pursuit of greater opportunity and had tremendous, often untapped potential. They soon learned that few systems in their new American home were truly designed to serve them. They were denied access to public services due to their immigration status, they were blocked from opportunity by language barriers, they had little political representation at state and local levels, and they were often placed in large classes with overly simplified assignments far behind their grade-level, denying them the real opportunity they needed to achieve their dreams beyond high school– the very dreams they migrated for.  

As the current COVID crisis first began to bear down on Oakland, I immediately thought of immigrant students like mine and their families. There are almost 3,000 newcomer students in Oakland schools. They come from dozens of countries and speak a multitude of languages. Their contributions are an integral part of what makes Oakland a thriving, dynamic city. In these past few weeks, many of their parents have lost jobs, had their hours significantly reduced, or have been forced to risk their health to keep working in low-paid but “essential” jobs. Undocumented families, even those that pay taxes are denied any federal financial relief that other families will receive. Families with limited English skills struggle to stay up-to-date on rapidly changing policies from schools, local government, and public health agencies. How will these students with so many cards stacked against them access the support they need in this chaotic time? Will COVID-19 defer their dreams even further?  

I recently caught up with Jizabel Navarrete, a newcomer counselor at Oakland International High School to learn about the unique challenges the OIHS community is facing and how their staff and families are banding together to ensure that each and every student gets the support they need. As part of our #GOgive campaign, we are making a donation to their school fund and we are inviting all who are able to join us in making an individual donation.    

The OIHS community has rallied together to face the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19. While we know that language barriers, economic uncertainty, racism, and legal status presents unique challenges to communities like OIHS, we also know that they are not defined by these challenges. Like many of Oakland’s immigrant communities they are defined by their resilience, innovation, and unity in the face of these challenges. It’s these characteristics that are needed so badly in a time like this. I’ve been lucky to see first hand, from my time in Miami to my time now in Oakland. 

In addition to OIHS’s Emergency Fund for Newcomer Families, a few other efforts are underway to support immigrant families both locally and statewide. OUSD teachers and principals recently launched the Stimulus Pledge to encourage individuals to donate all or part of their federal stimulus check to vulnerable immigrant families that are not eligible for this federal assistance or unemployment benefits. Additionally, Governor Newsom just announced that the state will be issuing disaster relief checks (between $500-$1000) to support immigrant families. The state has also launched a Guide for Immigrant Californians which outlines the services available at this time. While these state-level resources are badly needed, these funds will take time to arrive and they won’t come close to closing the real financial gaps that Oakland families, like those of OIHS, are urgently facing.  Our newcomer students have traveled great distances in pursuit of greater opportunity and have strengthened our communities in the process. We must go the distance for them and continue to support them in any way we can. 

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