After an Immigration Raid, A City’s Students Vanish (New Yorker.com)
David Morales teaches social studies at Mayfield High School, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, a city of a hundred thousand people, located fifty miles north of the Mexican border. Some of his students are the children of undocumented immigrants, and a few of them might even be undocumented themselves. He doesn’t know which ones, exactly, and he doesn’t care. “When they’re in my classroom, I’m there to teach them,” he told me recently. “I make a point of not knowing, unless the student wants me to.” His classes are small, with around twenty students each, and when any kid is out, “it’s obvious,” he said. “But last month it was painfully obvious.”
On February 15th, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ice) officers conducted a raid in Las Cruces, arresting people at a trailer park on the outskirts of town. The raid came a few weeks after President Trump signed two executive orders, signalling his plans to fulfill a campaign promise of cracking down on undocumented immigrants. Rumors spread that there were further raids planned, though none took place. On February 16th, a Thursday, Las Cruces’s public schools saw a sixty-per-cent spike in absences compared to the previous week—twenty-one hundred of the district’s twenty-five thousand students missed school. Two thousand students stayed away again the next day. Attendance returned to normal the following week, which made the two-day rash of absences all the more pronounced. “It was alarming,” Greg Ewing, the district’s superintendent, told me. News of the raid caused such fear in the community that Ewing wrote a letter to parents on the 16th, in English and Spanish, reassuring them that “we do not anticipate any ice activity occurring on school campuses.”
His reassurances only went so far. Students might not have been at risk, but their parents seemed to fear that they themselves would be stopped coming or going from the schools. “Parents often don’t have legal papers,” he said. “They just have to survive day by day so their kids can get educated.” At the city’s high schools, absences went up by twenty-five per cent in the two days after the raids, but the numbers were even higher at the schools for younger students, where many still rely on their parents to drop them off and pick them up every day. In the two days after the raids, absences at elementary schools rose by almost a hundred and fifty per cent.
“As my students filed in, I was worried,” Morales said. “Who’s not going to be here?” In one of his classes, three students were missing on the 16th. The next day it was five. “My first thought was, Are they O.K.?” he said. “Then, What if their parents got picked up? Do they have a place to stay?”