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NewsJul 8, 2019

Faculty member offers his observations from front of immigration crisis

David Nurenberg, associate professor of education, decries treatment of children in Florida detention camp

Group of people standing on step stools outside holding up red heart cutouts
Pictured: Associate Professor David Nurenberg (second from right) protests the treatment of children at a Florida detention center.

This is a firsthand account by Associate Professor David Nurenberg of his visit to the Homestead, Florida, immigrant detention center.

As educators we are entrusted with the care and well-being of children. Even after 20 years, I still regard this as an awesome responsibility, even more so since I became a parent myself. It is perhaps the greatest expression of our faith in the social compact with government that we trust its employees to nurture, protect and educate our kids. When this trust is violated, it strikes at the core of everything we hold dear.

This is the belief that led me to make the difficult decision to spend my Father’s Day weekend, not with my own kids, but on a stepladder outside the Homestead Detention Center in Southern Florida. I stood looking over a fence to watch groups of interned children being marched around in lines by security personnel, waiting to play brief games of soccer on a dusty brown pitch before being marched away. I had joined an ongoing group of local citizens in Homestead who bear daily witness, as best they can, to the goings-on here. It is probably no accident that many of them are teachers, too.

What we saw made us recoil: the internment of thousands of young children in unclean facilities, subjected to prison-style routines, forbidden to access lawyers, family members, or even to hug their siblings. (You can read the full report of all the upsetting details in the text of the lawsuit being filed by the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law). The Homestead facility is funded by $500,000 a day of our tax dollars, yet it is run by a private, for-profit company that denies access to child welfare workers and flagrantly violates the legal rights and protections of the children it holds, especially their rights under the 1993 Flores Agreement that prohibits the detention of minors for more than 20 days. (Some of Homestead’s children have been detained for months.) Our government claims the nature of the “immigration emergency” allows the company free rein to dispense with everything from living standards for the kids to background checks for its employees.

This isn’t about “the immigration debate.” This is about the legal
and ethical obligation to treat children humanely.
David Nurenberg, Associate Professor

But this isn’t about “the immigration debate.” This is about the legal and ethical obligation to treat children humanely.

When we teach students about historical cases of government-sanctioned abuse and mistreatment of vulnerable people — the Holocaust, Japanese internment, Jim Crow — it can all seem very abstract and distant to them. "How could people have let this happen?” they always wonder. "People must have just been different in that time and place, etc." Studying the mechanisms of how these kinds of crimes are happening here and now is important.

My research and courses at Lesley focus on student engagement, the cornerstone of which, in the words of Paulo Freire in “Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage,” helps students “make concrete connections between what they have read and what is happening in the world, country, or the local community.”

Our job as teachers isn’t to tell students what to think and do, but it is our mission to help them be aware of what’s going on, and to help them find resources and strategies to educate themselves further. Like Freire, I believe that education isn’t just something you acquire so you can put it on your shelf — it’s something to use to take action in the name of what is right.