"We're educators. We don't work for the I.N.S.," said one teacher.
When an award-winning journalist recently revealed he’s an illegal immigrant, two of the key players in his tale turned out to be educators who helped keep his secret. It’s the kind of story teachers and principals scattered across the country know well.
With some 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., educators increasingly find themselves caught between their obligation to educate each child and conflicting guidance, or simply no direction at all, about whether to help such students beyond the classroom.
Law officers and lawmakers in some states want schools to help spot illegal immigrants. Federal authorities remind school officials that every child is entitled to an education. National education groups echo that but recommend that schools avoid getting involved when it comes to students’ citizenship issues.
Ultimately, the adults in each classroom have to decide for themselves how far they will go.
Rich Fischer and Pat Hyland were school administrators in affluent Mountain View, Calif., home of Google and other tech companies, in 2000 as a young Filipino student named Jose Antonio Vargas was nearing graduation. He excelled in school but wasn’t going to college because of his residency status and the high cost.
“We’re educators. We don’t work for the I.N.S.,” Fischer, now retired as school superintendent, told the Associated Press, adding that teachers across the country face the same issues more and more.
“Actually, I think if you put a number to it, I think it would look epidemic and tragic.”
Fischer and Hyland considered adopting Vargas, and eventually found him a scholarship to San Francisco State University. Vargas was a college standout, eventually landing an internship and then a full-time job at the Washington Post, getting the internship after Fischer, Hyland and others helped him get a driver’s license.
“I’m not really sure if I could have made it without them,” Vargas, part of a team of Post journalists who won a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre, told the AP.
Hyland, who was the principal at Mountain View High School when Vargas was there, said the help she provided was “sort of humanitarian, in my mind.”
She has helped other illegal immigrants find a way to college. Many stop short, though, out of fear, she said.
“It’s a conundrum. … What are we doing to help this child survive and help this child reach his or her potential?” she said. “Educators are stuck in that position. We are sort of an underground support network for a lot of kids who come to us.”
Hyland and Fischer said they’re not overly concerned about legal consequences from helping Vargas.