By Liz Reetz
Aurora School Board Director Cathy Wildman made multiple anti-immigrant statements at the Aurora Public Schools Board Meeting on May 15. The resolution brought before the school board should not have been controversial, Denver and many other school districts passed similar resolutions without controversy. The resolution, crafted by APS students and families convened through RISE Colorado, is a response to the increased fear and confusion facing refugee and immigrant students under the current presidential administration. It clarifies the district’s existing policies on communicating with Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE), directs the district to translate and share their policies, and reaffirms the need for emergency contacts in case a family member cannot pick up a child.
Ultimately the resolution passed with the unanimous support of the board. Not before, however, Director Wildman offered the reason for her hesitation about the resolution: “I guess I feel that we are setting aside, or creating additional rules and policies in some ways where people broke the rules.”
Yes, she was talking about immigrant families and students as people who “broke the rules.” As one APS parent pointed out during the meeting, Aurora is legally obligated to serve all students regardless of immigration status thanks to the Supreme Court ruling in Plyler v. Doe. In a room full of refugees and immigrants, Cathy Wildman expressed hesitation about supporting children and families she perceived as rule-breakers. I hope Wildman can connect with the immigrant communities she represents so that she can deepen her understanding of immigration.
She also referenced a legislator in Arizona (her sister) where anti-immigrant or just plain racist policies are enshrined in state law. Immigrants in Arizona, she pointed out, had made parts of the state unsafe for her nieces. Wildman’s comments feed a problematic national narrative about the danger of refugee and immigrant communities. Not only is it dehumanizing, it’s xenophobic. She assumes that the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border are endangering American children. Then, she draws a parallel between those “dangerous” immigrants and the immigrants living, working, and learning in Aurora.
To be clear, students who are-—or whose families are—immigrants are not a small group of students. There are many APS schools including Crawford Elementary School, Paris Elementary School, and Aurora Central High School where more than half of the students speak a language other than English at home. Several schools have upwards of 70% of households speaking languages other than English. The resolution before the board was crafted to ensure that APS was a safe and inclusive environment for students regardless of immigration status. Yet Director Wildman’s dogged pushback against multiple components of the resolution as well as her problematic commentary on the resolution communicated that she was not committed to ensuring that refugee and immigrant communities felt safe and included.
Though Wildman voted in favor of the resolution, she joked that people would be nervous about how she would vote. Yet, to the dozens immigrant students and families in the room, I do not think her resistance felt like a joke. Wildman’s comments did little to instill confidence that she has an understanding of or empathy for the many immigrant and refugee students in the schools she was elected to represent. And this is where I see opportunity: Director Wildman, and every school board member for that matter, should be spending time with the students and families she serves. I would hope that time spent with immigrant communities in her district would inform her leadership more than secondhand stories from Arizona. Director Wildman could choose to spend significant time with any one of several organizations that work with refugee and immigrant communities, including RISE Colorado, the Resident Leadership Council, and African Leadership Group.
From the discussion about the resolution, I see that Director Wildman has more work to do to ensure that she is connecting with the community she serves. Aurora is the most diverse community in Colorado with large immigrant populations from Nepal, Somalia, Ethiopia, Mexico, and dozens of other nations of origin. The district affirms that diversity is a strength. Part of providing the quality education many people come to this country searching for is ensuring that students feel not only safe, but respected. APS students deserve a representative who does not fear or stereotype their communities.