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Q&A: Why Miami’s Superintendent, Once an Undocumented Immigrant, Is Banning ICE From His Schools

By Mark Keierleber | March 22, 2017

Photo: Jimmy Abraham, courtesy of Miami-Dade schools
Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho sees himself in many of his students. He remembers the promises of a new home with better opportunities. He also remembers the fear of being forced out.

He, like a large number of Miami-Dade students and their parents, was an undocumented immigrant. Born in Portugal, Carvalho immigrated to the United States in the early 1980s to escape stark poverty. Finding his grounding in the Land of Opportunity was far from easy, as he bounced between odd jobs and experienced homelessness. Fast-forward a few decades: Today, he leads America’s fourth-largest school district.

Lately, Carvalho’s immigrant student population has been at the top of his mind. As President Trump makes strict immigration enforcement a cornerstone of his political agenda, dozens of school districts and cities across the country are fighting back. Miami-Dade is among the districts with a “sanctuary school” policy — even though the county itself has agreed to hold arrested immigrants for federal authorities.

In a widely circulated television interview, Carvalho spoke passionately about how far he’d go to protect his students: “On behalf of every single kid in this community, over my dead body will any federal entity enter our schools to take immigration actions against our kids,” he said.

I spoke with Carvalho about his own immigration journey and his commitment to helping children in similar situations. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The 74: You were born in Portugal and came to the United States after your high school graduation. Can you explain what you experienced in your schooling and what led you to move to the U.S.?

Carvalho: It was because of a lack of opportunity in my own country. I was born to and grew up in very poor circumstances, in a family of six kids. I was the only one to graduate high school. I had a deep desire of going to college, and I knew that devoid of possession, means, or influence, my parents couldn’t provide that for me.

I always had this fascination with the United States of America, so as a young teenager, after graduating high school, I worked for a number of months and I did buy a trip to the United States of America. I remember landing in New York City, JFK International Airport, and the rest is history. I was able to, at some point, work toward a student visa with a work permit attached. That was with the assistance of a Republican congressman who has since died, but I’ve paid homage to him in a lot of my conversations. That was Congressman E. Clay Shaw, who represented Broward County just north of Miami, who understood my predicament and helped me. He helped me legalize my immigration status in this country. Different time. This person saw beyond status; this person saw a human being with a desire to do something for himself, and he assisted me.

(The 74: How One Ambitious Schools Chief Rescued America’s Fourth-Largest District)

I think there’s a degree of paying it forward, so to speak. After I got my bachelor’s degree, I had every intention of going to medical school. I did very well, but I felt that I needed to work first, and I remember getting my first job as a teacher in an inner-city school, and the bug infected me. Twenty-six years later, here I am as superintendent of the fourth-largest school system in America. Now I think it is both my duty and my responsibility to not turn my back on children who, much like me, find themselves in similar situations.

What year did you move to the U.S.?

I came to the States in about 1982–83. I arrived in New York. I remember some of my first jobs in this country. I spent a lot of time scrubbing pots and pans in sweaty kitchens in the city, I was a construction day laborer carrying cement and sand and brick, and I did anything from asphalting in South Florida to roofing. I painted places, homes, bused tables, waited on tables, which tells us once again that the American dream that we discuss so much is a real dream that is achievable. It takes a lot of work, and it takes sometimes a degree of compassion and understanding and acceptance.

While you were here without the necessary paperwork, did you fear deportation? What have students at your school district expressed to you since the election?

I see myself in the eyes of our kids. Some of the challenges that the kids face today, I sort of experienced them. I’m an immigrant, I came to this country not speaking a word of English, I came from abject poverty, I came from an environment where my parents were not educated, I experienced being an undocumented teenager in America.

My experiences were a result of those conditions of being homeless in South Florida, and when I now know the demographic profile of the district that I lead — 365,000 students K-12, another 150,000 adult learners, 75 percent of them live at or below the poverty level, 50 percent of them born outside the U.S. or first generation, 79,000 of them who are English-language learners — that gives you an idea of how many of them could be recent arrivals. Leading a district that experienced a significant increase in foreign-born population over the past few years, particularly through Mexico but [also] countries of origin specific to Honduras, Guatemala, on a different economic spectrum, a huge increase of students from Venezuela and, of course, a significant increase of students from Cuba, but just a few years ago a significant increase of students from Haiti.

I say that because the challenges that students convey directly to me, and everybody in this community knows very well prior to this hotly debated issue of immigration having seen a resurfacing during the presidential campaign and now post-election, the community knew well my origin and my own life history. Therefore, the students have a very natural and organic way of expressing their own fears. We don’t ask in our system, obviously, any questions of students or parents specific to their immigration status. When they have to register in school, we do not keep any data like that. But they often volunteer it, because I believe they feel a degree of safety knowing my own background.

That is why, back in 2012, I made my position very clear. This was the case of Daniela Pelaez, a North Miami Senior High School valedictorian who was ordered by a judge to be deported. I publicly stated what I reaffirmed recently, that I really did not understand the priority of a nation that would seek to deport a student who had been here since she was 2 years of age, whose brother had served the United States Army and had been deployed overseas, and how she would be served an order of deportation. I took a position then, I stood with the students, and yes, I did say that I actually would resign my position as superintendent if that came to pass and I would dedicate my professional time in the advocacy of young people like her.

I believe her case actually stimulated, at least in our community, and specific to our congressional delegation, individuals like Sen. Marco Rubio and our congressional delegation reignited the conversation about the DREAMers. Shortly thereafter, the executive order that provided protective rights for DACA kids in fact passed.

We are in a very different time now. Earlier this month, the Miami-Dade school district reaffirmed your policy to protect students who are undocumented or maybe live with parents who are undocumented. You have received quite a bit of attention for a strong statement saying that over your dead body would immigration enforcement agents enter your school to round up students. Why do you think it is necessary to take such a strong stance?

I remember Charlton Heston, when he stood in front of those NRA conventions, he used to make the statement “over my dead body.” It was a statement that I made back in 2012 when I stood up for Daniela Pelaez, and a statement that was echoed again in 2017 in light of a great deal of fear and concern from both parents and students in Miami-Dade.

In February, I sent a letter to President Trump, commending him on the statements that he had made specific to the DREAMers. It appeared that, notwithstanding some of his positions or policies on immigration, that he was interested in safeguarding the interests of kids who were brought to this country at a young age, and they are for all practical purposes American. I mean, these kids stand and pledge allegiance to the flag just like any other kid. Many of them really don’t know, when you were brought here at six months of age or 2 years of age. So they are Americans in every sense of the word other than by citizenship gifted to them as a function of birth.

As part of the narrative, it naturally flowed. I so believe in the interest of these kids, and I so want to dispel fears that they may have. That was a strong way of basically saying, “We have your back as an institution, myself personally as superintendent, our school board, our school system in a community of immigrants, that we are not going to turn our back on you. Your rights, in fact, are legally protected, and we have both a legal and moral responsibility to protect your interests and provide you a high-quality education, no questions asked.”

That’s what’s embedded in our school board policy specific to entry requirements into district schools for all students, regardless of country of birth or immigration status. That’s what was reaffirmed in January 2017, when the school board unanimously passed legislation authored by one of our board members, Perla Hantman, advocating for the rights of undocumented students with the federal government. Subsequent to that, my very public statement about these young men and women and boys and girls, and then most recently, as you correctly said, last week the school board once again reaffirmed its position of protecting undocumented minors.

It's not a new position that we declared, it’s actually a position that’s well intertwined with the history of our district, the demographic profile of our district, and above all what we believe are strong principles of decency for the least-protected kids who often find themselves in a position of not really understanding what’s happening to them. All they know is Mommy is afraid, Daddy is terrified, and they themselves feel that they’re in no-man’s-land.

(The 74: Claiming Sanctuary: Inside the Schools Now Actively Resisting President Trump’s Immigration Crackdown)

That to me was made perfectly clear when I gave my seat at the last board meeting to an 11-year-old little girl, who eloquently spoke from my seat about her story. She was born in this country, 11 years old today, her mom is a DREAMer and her dad is an undocumented resident. I just carefully have to consider the plight of that kid whose journey is replicated thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of times, not only across this community but across the country. The fear that that kid must go to sleep with every day and the fear that she must wake up with, and in between the terrifying nightmares of being separated from her family, maybe losing one parent, maybe losing both, maybe having to go to a country that she does not know as an American citizen. So it seems like all these options are Hobson’s choices, none of them are good. So for that kid, if both parents were deported, as an American citizen she could opt to stay here with nobody, which would be interesting. She would automatically be deemed a foster child, or go to a country that is not a country of her birth, or as a DREAMer her mom is allowed to stay but dad has to go, so now we’re separating families.

There’s no easy answer to these issues, and I understand that. But rather than beginning to take punitive action that first and foremost impacts children with all the trauma that it causes, I have a feeling that maybe we ought to first consider comprehensive immigration reform, and be methodical, rational, compassionate about these issues, rather than engaging in pronouncements and rhetoric that hurts deeply, particularly children.

Recently, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez said the county is not a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. With the school district resolution, do any tensions exist between you and the mayor, and how can the district move forward?

I’m not going to speak for the mayor, but I certainly can understand why he made the comment that he made. It was in a protective manner of safeguarding federal investments in the community. The mayor and I have a very good working relationship, we don’t see the policies intersecting, and by the way, the local entities for ICE have spoken with us and they have agreed with us that they have absolutely no intention of entering our public schools and apprehending anybody on campus. It is not their interest, they recognize our position, and they also recognize the protected status, thus far, of children, particularly children protected by DACA.

Our concern obviously is not only for the kids; that’s our first and foremost concern, but obviously it’s a concern that’s extended to the parents of these children. We do not want to face this heartbreaking situation that we saw happening in Fort Lauderdale, where parents of children who were students in that county were apprehended at the airport and the kids were left there alone. For us, it would be incredibly devastating to have to consult kids whose parents may not be able to pick them up at school. That’s something that weighs heavily on us, and that’s why we provided resources even before we made the statements that we made and the board adopted the resolution. We have provided a great deal of protective information to principals, resources to our counselors recognizing the level of stress and concern in the minds of students and their parents, and also lists of outside agencies that specialize in immigration for parents to use should they have a need to do so.

(The 74: No Warrant, No Way In: NYC to Prevent ICE Agents From Entering Schools Without Warrants)

As far as the political dynamic between the mayor and I, he has a county to run, I have schools to run, and my first responsibility is the well-being, the safety, the security, and the educational opportunity for all kids regardless of their immigration status. The mayor is indeed very much supportive of the positions I’ve taken as far as the kids are concerned. I don’t want to speak for him, but his issue is one specific to the apprehension of individuals who may be in the federal database and hold them for a certain period of time to allow the federal entities at least to have interaction with them. So it’s not one that is applicable to our student population.

Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to add?

I am a proud American by choice, not by chance. What worked for me must continue to work for those who, like me, saw a better future in this land that we call the Land of Opportunity. We certainly have a chance to become something different as a country, but then we have to change the narrative about how we define ourselves. If we’re not the Land of Opportunity, if we’re not the land where dreams are made, if we’re not the beacon of hope for the downtrodden, the poor, the oppressed, then maybe we ought to remove the inscription from the Statue of Liberty and turn off the lights.

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