Abby Rubio, left, and her sister, Noemi, sit on Abby’s bed in their shared bedroom.

Immigration

Why a Texas school district is helping immigrants facing deportation

Deep in Trump country, a superintendent helps his students and their families cope after an ICE raid

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Hermenegildo Rubio stands with his children (from left) Abby, 16, Adam, 10, Danny, 20, and Noemi, 13, in the living room of his Honey Grove home.

Hermenegildo Rubio stands with his children (from left) Abby, 16, Adam, 10, Danny, 20, and Noemi, 13, in the living room of his Honey Grove home.

This story is part of a series about how schools, teachers and students are coping with the immigration crisis.

HONEY GROVE, Texas — Abigail Rubio, 16, was eating lunch in the cafeteria of Honey Grove High School when she found out ICE was raiding the trailer factory where her dad worked. “Did y’all hear about what happened at Load Trail?” a friend asked. Abigail, or Abby as friends and family call her, went on social media. On Snapchat, a friend asked if she’d talked to her dad yet. The friend said buses and helicopters were outside the plant.

“That’s when it hit me,” said the shy junior who runs cross country and plays tambourine in her Pentecostal church band. “I broke down.”

On August 28, 2018 helicopters and hundreds of officials descended on Load Trail, one of several trailer-manufacturing factories in and around Sumner, a rural town in northeastern Texas near the border with Oklahoma. One hundred fifty-nine workers — among them welders, painters and finishers — were arrested on immigration charges. The vast majority were men originally from Mexico.

It was one of the biggest worksite raids in the past 10 years, said Katrina Berger, special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations in Dallas, during a press conference. When The Hechinger Report visited six weeks later — long after the choppers had left and most of the workers had been released on bail — fear and anxiety remained high, with entire families swept up in the emotional, legal and economic insecurity.

But in this small Texas town where Friday nights belong to high school football, Superintendent Todd Morrison decided these weren’t struggles families should deal with alone. As ICE arrests rise and President Trump doubles down on his immigration hardline, the choice to help students and their undocumented families beyond school walls — or not — is one that more and more educators are facing.

The burly, gray-haired Morrison, who runs the Honey Grove Independent School District, which has 645 students across its elementary, middle and high schools, says nine parents or guardians of Honey Grove students were detained during the Load Trail raid.

“These families are great Honey Grove parents and families. They’re some of our best parents and students,” Morrison said, sitting beneath a row of family photos in his spacious office, a framed American flag on the adjacent wall. “These parents are ones if you call them they’re the first who will come to the school because they’re concerned about their children’s education. They are pillars of our community.”

The day after the raid, Morrison accompanied family members of those arrested to the Iglesia Evangelica Filadelfia, a church with a largely immigrant congregation, so they could get legal advice from the volunteer attorneys who had gathered onsite. His initial priority was helping families figure out where their loved ones were being held — some had been taken to Alvarado, others to Oklahoma City — and then getting them bailed out and back home.

In the days and weeks that followed, he made sure counselors were available to the affected students. He and the high school principal accompanied parents to their court appearances in Dallas to show support and help negotiate the process. He told faculty that if they wanted to write letters on behalf of students and families for the attorneys to present in court, they could do so. (They did.) And he raised thousands of dollars.

Related: In a conservative corner of Arkansas, schools welcome immigrants

Morrison knows that if a child’s home life is thrown into crisis, it will be difficult for them to come to school and learn. That understanding is backed by research over the past decade looking at the impacts of ICE raids on children, the trauma citizen children face when a parent is detained or deported and the role of schools in supporting children in these circumstances. Morrison also believes strongly that if there’s something a school can do to help alleviate students’ suffering, they should do it.

A post office sits opposite a sign for the high school football team on Main Street in downtown Honey Grove.

A post office sits opposite a sign for the high school football team on Main Street in downtown Honey Grove.

Honey Grove is not the only school district dealing with immigration trauma. Across the country, districts and teachers are stepping up in the wake of President Trump’s crackdown on immigration. In a series of stories chronicling how the immigration debate is affecting students, The Hechinger Report has spoken with dozens of schools across the country in which teachers, counselors and administrators are working to help students who are coping with the stress of traumatic border crossings, raids and deportations.

But perhaps none have been quite so bold as the educators in Honey Grove, located as they are deep in small town Trump country.

Honey Grove (population roughly 1,700) sits in Fannin County about 20 miles west of downtown Paris, and bills itself as “The Sweetest Town in Texas.” It’s a mostly white, working-class community. “We’re just an old country town is what we are,” said Morrison.

The school district is the biggest employer in town, and many adults work in the local trailer plants or the factories in nearby Sherman, of which Tyson Foods is the largest. According to census data, about 11 percent of residents are Mexican. Morrison estimates about a quarter of his students are.

The church Morrison visited after the raid, Iglesia Evangelica Filadelfia, in Paris, remains a hub for those seeking legal advice, donated food and toiletries or simply moral support. Pastor Moisés Navarrete says two families in his small congregation had someone arrested in the Load Trail raid, but dozens more have visited in the days and weeks since.

Oralia Rubio, left, and her husband, Hermenegildo, stand in the kitchen of their home in Honey Grove, Texas. Hermenegildo was one of 159 workers arrested at the Load Trail trailer plant in nearby Sumner on August 28, 2018. He now faces possible deportation.

Oralia Rubio, left, and her husband, Hermenegildo, stand in the kitchen of their home in Honey Grove, Texas. Hermenegildo was one of 159 workers arrested at the Load Trail trailer plant in nearby Sumner on August 28, 2018. He now faces possible deportation.

One such visitor, Mayra, who only gave her first name and whose husband, brother and father had all been arrested, stopped by the church this October. She had put her home up as collateral to pay a lawyer, she said, and all the stress is affecting her daughters, Abigail, 8, and Camila, 6. “Right now Abigail is angry too much,” Mayra said. “For anything she just gets mad. I ask, ‘What’s going on Abigail?’ and she says, ‘I don’t know, mom.’ She goes to the next room and lies down and cries.” Her youngest has begun wetting the bed at night.

The mother of Abby Rubio, the junior at Honey Grove High, was also at the church. Oralia Rubio’s husband — Abby’s father — Hermenegildo has been working whatever odd jobs he can ever since he was arrested at Load Trail, where he worked for 22 years. Oralia sees the turmoil taking a toll on her four children, Adam, 10, Noemi, 13, Abby and Danny, 20.

“It’s difficult,” she said in Spanish, wiping away tears. “They’re so worried. What explanation can I give them?”

With Hermenegildo unemployed, money is tight at the Rubio home — especially after the $7,500 bail. There’s the mortgage payment, the utility bills, the lease on Danny’s car. Thankfully, his college tuition was paid through the Fall 2018 semester.

Hermenegildo recalled one day recently when he and Oralia were talking about their finances within earshot of their youngest son, Adam, who seemed absorbed in his video game.

“He was playing over there and then he said, ‘Pa, I have $30. You can have it.’ ”

The Rubio kids are soft-spoken, well-mannered, conscientious — and undeniably American.  Adam follows soccer and plays baseball and “Roblox.” Noemi and Abby run cross country, play flute and follow popular teen TV series like “Fuller House,” “Riverdale” and “13 Reasons Why.” Danny studies sports medicine at Paris Junior College. He used to also work the night shift at Load Trail, earning $14 an hour doing touch-up work — replacing missing screws, fixing bad paint or loose wires. After the raid, the company dropped the second shift due to the shortage of workers, so Danny spends more time helping his siblings with their homework or driving them to and from school and activities.

Abby Rubio, 16, warms up with her teammates before a cross country meet in Bonham, Texas.

Abby Rubio, 16, warms up with her teammates before a cross country meet in Bonham, Texas.

All four kids understood their parents’ immigration status. But that didn’t make their dad’s arrest less shocking.

“It’s just been really hard seeing what my dad has to go through and everything they’ve been trying to do,” said Abby, sitting on an oversized leather sofa in the family room, where crocheted doilies cradle family photos, candles and artificial floral arrangements. “It never came into my mind that it would happen to us.”

After all, both her parents had been living here since the mid-1990s. They came, as so many immigrants do, seeking a better future both for their families back home and for the future family they hoped to create.

Hermenegildo was 17 and working in the sugarcane fields in San Luis Potosí, a state in central Mexico, when he first crossed the border from Mexico into the U.S. in 1992. He worked in Houston until an uncle further north helped him land a job on a ranch in Honey Grove. Oralia came in 1996. She was 21, and had studied assistant accounting in Monterrey but couldn’t find work. She got a job on a dairy farm in Texas, and later washing dishes and cooking in a restaurant. The pair met at a Baptist church they both attended, and married in 1997. They had Danny the following year.

They worked hard, paid their taxes, bought a home, raised four kids, were active in their church and community and were model — if not legal — citizens.

Related: DACA students persevere, enrolling at, remaining in and graduating from college

But so were many of those arrested at Load Trail in August. Immigration attorneys representing several of the families say the raid is somewhat unique in the number of people with no criminal history who have been living in the United States a very long time, sometimes decades.

Lisa Peterson, a school psychologist for the Dallas school district, has worked with students who have had a parent recently detained or deported. She says the most important thing a school can do is offer a safe space for the kids and their parents. “That’s really important for families to know we’re not places that will jeopardize their safety,” she said.

Superintendent Todd Morrison runs the Honey Grove Independent School District. He says nine parents or guardians of Honey Grove students were detained during the Load Trail raid in August 2018.

Superintendent Todd Morrison runs the Honey Grove Independent School District. He says nine parents or guardians of Honey Grove students were detained during the Load Trail raid in August 2018.

As soon as Morrison heard about the raid, he called together staff members to figure out which kids had a parent who worked at Load Trail, and then brought those kids together to explain what was happening. “We tried to grab it by the horns,” he said. “We did not want them to catch something on Facebook or a phone call before they knew all the information.”

The younger kids, Morrison recalled, were especially distraught. “It was a fear of the unknown, and it’s still a fear of the unknown,” he said.

He also hit up individual donors he thought would be empathetic to the situation.

Morrison distributed the money he raised in the form of Visa gift cards that families can use to pay the electric bill, put gas in the car, buy groceries or cover doctor appointments. “These families are proud. They’re not looking for handouts. They just need a little bit of help getting through this scenario until dad can start getting wages again,” he said.

The Rubios say the school’s support is making a difference. Danny’s former coach from Honey Grove reached out to make sure he’s OK. Abby’s school counselor called her in to comfort her. The same counselor, along with a bunch of teachers and administrators, wrote letters to the judge, explaining, Abby said, “how we’re good students and don’t deserve to be separated from our dad.”

“It makes me happy that they’re concerned and being helpful,” she added.

“They’re very attentive,” said Oralia. “They ask the kids how their dad’s case is going. They don’t want the kids to be sad. They’re worried about them.”

Honey Grove, which calls itself “The Sweetest Town in Texas,” is a small, rural city near the border with Oklahoma.

Honey Grove, which calls itself “The Sweetest Town in Texas,” is a small, rural city near the border with Oklahoma.

Morrison said he hasn’t gotten pushback from other parents who may support a tougher approach to immigrants working in the U.S. illegally. He attributes that to the fact that he grew up here, graduated from Honey Grove High School and has worked in the district for 20 years — as a teacher, football coach and principal before becoming superintendent.

“For the most part our community trusts the school,” he said.

But he doesn’t judge other districts that are less inclined to take similar actions on behalf of their students.

“Each school district has to do what fits their community. I’m doing what I feel fits the Honey Grove community,” Morrison said.

Related: What happens when a regular high school decides no student is a lost cause?

Nearly 80 percent of voters in Fannin County supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, in which immigration and border security were notorious wedge issues. Trump’s populist campaign saw supporters chanting “Build that wall!” at rallies across the country, and the nominee himself referring to Mexican immigrants as drug dealers, criminals, rapists and “some, I assume” good people.

So it’s little surprise that ICE arrests surged after he took office in January 2017 and signed an executive order, Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States, which expanded immigration enforcement targeting people without serious criminal records.

(Despite this surge, total ICE arrests in 2017 were still less than half what they were in 2009 after President Obama took office.)

The Dallas ICE office, whose jurisdiction includes Sumner and Honey Grove, became the most aggressive in the country, according to the Pew Research Center. Not only did Dallas make the most arrests (16,520) in fiscal year 2017, they also had the second-biggest increase from the year prior.

At the Red Onion, a down-home restaurant off the E. Main Street highway, customers had heard the news of the raid.

Jeff Moxon, a mechanic who lives in Honey Grove, said it made him think about his Mexican customers.

Harvey and Patsy Milton talk immigration after lunch at The Red Onion in Honey Grove. “These people are coming here to better themselves but they’re breaking the law,” said Harvey, who worked in public schools for 56 years.

Harvey and Patsy Milton talk immigration after lunch at The Red Onion in Honey Grove. “These people are coming here to better themselves but they’re breaking the law,” said Harvey, who worked in public schools for 56 years.

“They’re really good customers and they’re honest,” he said. “They pay their bills, they don’t argue … I’m sad to hear that, but the law is the law.”

Harvey Milton, who worked in public schools for 56 years, including as superintendent of Honey Grove from 1984 to 2001, said he has mixed feelings.

“These people are coming here to better themselves but they’re breaking the law,” he said. “Those kids we had in school, I don’t remember any of them ever getting into trouble.”

Patsy, his wife of 62 years, sat across from him.

“I feel for those people,” she said gently.

Most of the men and women who were arrested will file for a “cancellation of removal” — an immigration status adjustment that allows them to avoid deportation and obtain a green card. To qualify, they must prove they’ve lived in the U.S. the past 10 years, have good moral character, no qualifying convictions and — here’s the tricky part — have a child, spouse or parent who is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident and faces “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” if the arrested person is deported.

“It is a high burden,” said Jennifer de Haro, managing attorney at RAICES, a Texas-based nonprofit that provides free and low-cost legal services to immigrants and refugees, including some of the Load Trail families. De Haro says a typical case that passes the bar is when there’s a child with a serious medical condition who won’t get quality treatment in the parent’s native country. “We’ve seen cases where it seems like pretty extreme hardship but the judge will still deny it because the hardship is comparable to what any family would face if separated.”

Another lawyer, Belinda Arroyo, also representing Load Trail families, believes Hermenegildo should be able to show exceptional hardship “cumulatively” since he is the sole provider for four American children.

But whether the judge agrees is another story.

Danny, though, said he’s confident his dad will be allowed to stay.

“My dad is a good person. He has a clean record. All he does is support his family, care for his family, support others when he can,” he said. “He has no bad genes at all. I’m sure the judge is going to see that.”

This story about schools and ICE raids was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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