“This is a hard life, Mister.”
He was holding a paper attendance tracker form in his hands, which he shook at me while he gave me the rebuttal he had wisely kept to himself in the dean’s office. He explained how he was 14, a middle schooler, when his father had been deported, which also marked the time he began working to help his mother pay rent. Three years later, his despondent mother wouldn’t talk to him anymore and his house was a place where he and his siblings fended for themselves to survive economically and emotionally in Aurora, Colorado, their adopted home, now that no one expected their father to return.
I stood and nodded, knowing that the relationship building I try to do with struggling students had earned me this story.
He went on to tell me how hard he had to work since that time to help pay rent, to buy a truck, and to afford the insurance and maintenance costs that went along with the transportation he needed. Growing angry as he talked, he told me how he had worked jobs in fast food restaurants for years and how the managers would only allow him to clock a fraction of his hours. When he complained, they would invite him to quit. They knew he was undocumented, without any rights to stand on, so he wasn’t entitled to the minimum wage guarantees afforded to citizens, to documented workers. S_____ knew at an early age what many American citizens don’t: the profits of fast food franchises in America are bolstered by the cheap labor costs of teens with fake social security cards. The fast food restaurants my students flood to every day at lunch cheat the kids they know they can cheat.
“This is a hard life, Mister.”
On that day, in that hallway, I told him that he was going to finish high school. Scared and angry as he was about the dean’s firm message about attendance, he also knew that his coaches and teachers cared for him. As a teacher of immigrants, I know that the trust we’d earned as a school with this immigrant boy missing his father was that much harder to earn because of the way our culture views and treats the immigrants we entice across our borders with jobs we’ve always counted on them filling.
The story didn’t pour out of F_____, I had to drag it out of him while his mother listened. I’d spoken to both of them about attendance a few times by phone before. Meeting face to face in the main office, I asked why he hadn’t transferred schools when he moved out of our attendance area like he and his mother had told me they were planning. He explained that his father had not gone to his new school to complete the transfer paperwork, so he had mostly stayed home while he was in academic limbo- too far away to drive to my class for our 8:30 AM start time but not enrolled in the high school right behind their new home. On that day F_____ promised to do better as an assistant principal and I laid out the potential consequences if he kept skipping school.
Weeks later, when F______ missed class for the first time since that conference, he told a coach his father had been deported. Now attending class daily, he sat in the first row right in front of where I started class each morning and he looked sadder by the day.
With his father gone, he chose to read My Life As an Undocumented Immigrant, by Jose Antonio Vargas in my class. The reading response he turned in during this traumatic time read:
Being an undocumented person is hard and comes with many challenges. Jose says, “I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living a different kind of reality.” This means people like him don’t grow up living a life like people that are documented and were born in the United States.
F____’s paper reminded me about the experiential cultural differences between me and so many of my students. My privilege contrasts with their constant worry.
These two boys missing their fathers and confronting trouble for missing school are in my thoughts on this Father’s Day. With both of them, I know I earned their trust in a cultural setting that treats them and their families like criminals while our Colorado economy booms with them as important cogs. When we said goodbye for summer, S_____ looked forward to working on a construction crew because the real estate market in the Denver metropolitan area is thriving and he found a boss who treated him fairly. The wages for a strong young laborer make it easy to afford rent, gas and insurance.
F____’s summer started on a more somber note. In past summers he would work long hours with his dad to renovate the houses of “people that are documented.” Will he be looking for work using the skills he learned working with his dad? Those skills and the stamina of strong young men are in high demand, as immigrant laborers know well. I like to think his dad’s friends will help take care of him. Unlike the hard fought trust teachers like me earn from immigrant students in our question to help them develop academic skills, the trust immigrant families have with employers is colder and more transactional. The risk and reward of employment with a labor crew is something immigrant students are all fluent in. Less personal than the trust grown between teachers and students, immigrants to my city trust they can find work and make money despite the harsh reception they receive on so many fronts.
Families know they risk being torn apart when they come here but they come here still. For wages. For jobs. American dreams are realistic dreams of families who expect full well to confront racism and corruption. While the horrifying new policy of separating children from parents, boys from fathers, is in the headlines and shocking to many American citizens on this Father’s Day, undocumented fathers and sons know our immigration system has been tearing families apart for a while.