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Story from the field: SPLC advocate helps immigrant families overcome barriers to an education

SPLC advocate Eileen Espinal describes how a rural Florida community meeting highlighted the obstacles children of migrant workers face at school.

Livestock and fields dotted the landscape as I traveled a dirt road to a community meeting in rural Florida earlier this year.

The Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA) hosted a meeting for parents of local school children in Wimauma. My colleague, SPLC senior attorney Lisa Carmona, and I were invited to give a presentation in Spanish to migrant farmworker parents about their child’s legal rights to a public education. As a child of an immigrant family, I consider it a privilege to help these students and their families and I was looking forward to the opportunity.

When we arrived at the meeting, about 40 migrant farmworker parents packed the classroom at a local research and education center in Wimauma, an unincorporated farm community in Hillsborough County. Many in attendance, including farmworkers and community leaders, hailed from Mexico and Central America. They represented 71 RCMA locations in 21 Florida counties.

These parents shared stories of coming to the United States for opportunities, only to face unexpected challenges navigating Florida’s school system. We wanted to learn about these challenges to help families overcome them. Many of these obstacles are commonplace statewide and nationally.

A big hurdle newcomers face is the language barrier. In addition to Spanish, a number of families speak regional dialects and languages.

We shared with the group key education rights that are often denied: Florida parents have a right to interpreters during school, but far too many parents find that they must bring their own interpreters. They also have a right to receive school communications in their native language, but there are still schools that ask parents to answer for their child’s rule violations even when these parents have never been provided the school’s discipline code in a language they understand.

School officials may complain that immigrant parents are not actively engaged in schools, but many schools create obstacles to parent engagement. This means parents are dealing with more than the stress of adjusting to a new life – they’re dealing with the stress of constantly asserting their legal rights to ensure their child receives an education.

As a young father said at the meeting, “I am participating here today instead of being out in the fields so that my child does not have to endure 100-degree weather and unfair conditions like I do to support my family. I live humbly in order to strive for my child to have a better future.”

Educating parents about their legal rights equips them with information to be strong advocates for their child. All Florida children have the right to attend public school, participate in extracurricular activities and earn their way into honor programs. They also have the right to be taught at their academic level by teachers trained to teach English language learners.

Despite these efforts, school districts need to be held accountable. The SPLC is currently monitoring the School District of Palm Beach County for its past failure to enroll several immigrant children in school. We helped a 15-year-old freshman student re-enroll in the district earlier this year after she was illegally pushed out of school.

Back in Wimauma, our focus was on informing parents about resources and their rights. Our message was well received. Parents were grateful to know that we care about their children’s education. Our time ended with our hosts serving us a fabulous, traditional lunch of tacos with meat and vegetable toppings with American strawberry shortcake for dessert. It was a remarkable meeting. We arrived not knowing anyone but left feeling like extended family.

It was a reminder that it takes a community to bring change.

Eileen Espinal is a community advocate in the SPLC’s Florida office.