Laura Kohl has spent the last two decades teaching elementary and middle school students, but it was one fifth grader who motivated her to become active with the North County Immigration Task Force (NCITF). The student had become hostile to her and had begun to bully other children, and she didn’t understand why. When she looked into the boy’s home life, she learned that his mother, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, had been arrested and taken from their home in Escondido, a suburb of San Diego, to a detention facility near the border, where she remained for one year. Her son, who was 9, had spent the previous year being shuttled among relatives. “He was so angry at her for being gone during a formative time in his life, and the defiance spilled over into every area of his life,” says Kohl. “It was so frustrating, because there was nothing I could do to help him.”
It’s a broken system. There can’t be 11 million people living in the shadows.
Seeing how the boy was affected, and aware that a recent wave of deportations must be similarly impacting other families, Kohl decided to become involved with NCITF, a pro-immigrant advocacy group. She would like to see immigration reform that provides a way for undocumented residents to gain legal status. “It’s a broken system. There can’t be 11 million people living in the shadows,” says Kohl. “If a person has kids born in the United States and these parents don’t have any outstanding criminal warrants, there has to be a legitimate path to citizenship.”
The lingering legacy of deportation can’t be underestimated, she says. Hispanics make up nearly 51 percent of Escondido’s population, but many residents live in what’s known as mixed-status households; only one person in the household might be a citizen or permanent resident, while another might be undocumented. “Everyone would be affected by deportation,” says Kohl, who retired and works as a substitute teacher. Psychological surveys distributed at one of her elementary schools revealed that many students felt safer at school than at home. “The kids had a fear that they’d get dropped off at school and their parents would be gone,” she says.
Kohl also worries about the fact that undocumented immigrants are often hesitant to report gang crimes or domestic violence because they fear getting deported. “People won’t call the police because they’re scared, so crime is feeding on itself,” she says. Kohl says she will do her part to make sure her students feel safe at school. She hopes the U.S. government will do its part to ensure that her students feel safe at home.