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Once an Undocumented Child, Now He Educates Virginia’s Youth

Sal Romero Jr. came to the United States as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico when he was 13 years old. Today, he is a citizen and serves on the Virginia Board of Education and as the first-ever Coordinator of Family and Community Engagement for Harrisonburg City Public Schools. It is a position to which he was appointed by Governor Terry McAuliffe — and it is a meaningful one: Romero is serving very same school system from which he graduated.

Romero faced numerous obstacles to reach this point, but none of it would have been possible without Ronald Reagan’s decision to grant amnesty to nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants in 1986. Romero’s father, who had been living and working in the United States for as long as Romero could remember, was one of these. It was because of his father’s green card that Romero’s family decided to take a risk: In 1991, Romero’s mother, youngest brother, and sister come over from Mexico to join his father. Six months later, he and his remaining siblings were brought to America by another relative to reunite the family, all hoping to build a new life in America with legal status.

Coming to America “really changed everything,” Romero recalls. “I remember the excitement that we would finally be living together. Especially as the oldest, I wanted more time with my dad. As soon as we crossed the border, we tried new foods, saw different scenery, heard different languages.”

The family’s bet paid off. In 1999, they became legal residents.

Yet life in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where the family settled, was not easy. Romero struggled with English and, before he legalized his status, he was afraid to draw attention to himself. At school, he was often isolated and sometimes bullied. Things got so bad that Romero considered dropping out of school to work full-time. Instead, his father suggested a compromise: spend a summer working at the poultry plant where his father was employed and then decide whether to quit.

“It provided me a better understanding of what my future would be like were I to stay in a place like that, so I decided to go back to school,” says Romero.

By his junior year, Romero had learned enough English to make friends and participate in school. He went onto Blue Ridge Community College, where he received his associate’s degrees before transferring to James Madison University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology. He later completed a master’s degree in educational administration at Sheanandoah University.

After finishing his education, Romero committed himself to public education, with a focus on helping immigrants acclimate to American life. He worked as a home/school liaison and ESL teacher and, later, as an assistant principal in the Harrisonburg City public school system. In 2010, he ran for city council while also overseeing a local Hispanic soccer league and directing a before- and after-school program of about 80 students. “I obviously have a special passion for the immigrant community,” says Romero. “But really, I love working with all families, just educating people on how we can do more for more people.”

If we want our children to be ready for the new world economy, to be tolerant and understanding and open-minded about working with people all over the world, reforming the system is a big opportunity for everyone.

As Coordinator of Family and Community Engagement for Harrisonburg City Schools, Romero has been especially busy since the 2016 election. “Our kids are worried about coming home to an empty house one day, and we want them and their parents to feel comfortable sending them to school because they know we will protect and support them,” he says. To reassure them, the superintendent initiated a partnership with Harrisonburg’s mayor, local police force, and local churches to organize seminars and events to reassure parents of all the efforts the school is making to provide a safe environment where students can thrive. “There’s still a lot of fear out there,” says Romero, “so reassurance is critical.”

Romero would like to see immigration reform that keeps families together, frees them from the fear that he experienced growing up, and allows them to fully contribute to the economy. Immigrants in Virginia’s sixth congressional district, where Romero lives, already pay almost $219 million in state and federal taxes, and hold more than $601 million in spending power, according to data from New American Economy. Additionally, more than 6,000 of them are homeowners. Imagine how much more they could do, Romero says, if they were free to come out of the shadows.

The City of Harrisonburg has been growing exponentially because of immigrants, which is good for our schools, workforce, economy,” he says. He attributes much of this growth to the fact that Harrisonburg has been a designated “Welcoming America” city, a national network of cities that seek to attract immigrants and help them acclimate. This type of outreach, he believes, is key to reform.

“When we provide opportunities for newcomers to feel welcome and involved and they’re able to come out of the shadows and integrate into our city, they are going to feel more welcome, happy, be more productive, and see this as a place to raise their families,” Romero says. “If we want our children to be ready for the new world economy, to be tolerant and understanding and open-minded about working with people all over the world, reforming the system is a big opportunity for everyone.”

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