Irish teacher helps kids get education despite threat of deportation from US

YVONNE Watterson left Antrim to live the American dream only for the ghosts of Ulster’s bitter divisions to follow her.By Richard Sullivan (Sunday World)Memories of growing up in a divided society came flooding back to the school principal when she was ordered to identify children on her roll who may have been born to illegal immigrants.Any child without a social securitynumber was virtually certain tobe illegal – even though almost every pupil at the Gateway Early College in Phoenix Arizona was born in the States. Under controversial legislation, known as Proposition 300 illegal immigrants are not entitled to receive funding for taking high school or university classes. If they want to stay in school they have come up with the money themselves, leaving them with bills running to thousands of dollars.Almost all the kids affected are Mexican. “As a teacher, as a person, I couldn’t stand back and let this happen,” Yvonne said. Speaking to the Sunday World from the desert city the 44-year-old said she was determined to prevent her pupils being put on a bus back to Mexico. “This is absolute discriminationagainst these kids, they have been born and brought up in the States, they know nothing else, yet now they are being told they have to go ‘home’ to a country they don’t know and have never set foot in.”Every morning the children in my school swear the oath of allegiance to the American flag, my children do it, they consider themselves American, yet we deny them a state funded education and are prepared to dump them over the border without a second thought.” Her dilemma brought memories of her childhood in Antrim flooding back.”I thought, ‘here we go again, segregating kids’. “It’s hatred, it’s that separation, not having to look someone in the eye. It’s horrible a and cowardly and I wouldn’t have believed I would find it in America.”Born and raised in Antrim, she graduated from Queen’s and attended Stranmillis teaching college before taking her first job at a primary school in the loyalist estate of Rathcoole. Amusing “On my first day, a little girl put her hand up and asked ‘miss are you a taig?’ “It was quite amusing but it stopped me dead in my tracks.”As a kid in Antrim our neighbours ere Catholic and it just never struck me as strange until I was an adult that Mary went to a catholic school and I went to a Protestant school. “I remember being embarrassed every 11th night when the bonfire was raging on the field outside our house, and young men were drunk and singing the Sash at the top of their lungs and yelling f*** the Pope etc.”People I knew, people who were decent people most of the time, turned into snarling, drunken hate filled monsters on the 12th July. ‘We lived with segregation without realising it, I look back on it now and Ithink it was such a bizarre way to live.” It was her disgust at bigotry and discrimination that prompted her to dedicate herself to the children in her school.She launched a fund, raising thousands of dollars to pay for the education of immigrants’ children.It has brought her nationwide acclaim and it has brought her into conflict with hidden America – the bigots and racists who want all immigrants out. “My first donation was an anonymous gift of $25,000, I thought ‘wow, this is great’ but I was totally unprepared for the hatred directed toward me on internet blogs.”Anonymous bloggers told the Mexicans to get out, they even suggested Yvonne was ‘one those Irish who came here in the 80s seeking political asylum’. Despite the hate campaign Yvonne managed to raise more than $83,000 dollars which will pay for 38 kids’education up to summer and into the autumn, beyond that there is only doubt. “It’s hard to know how all the other parents feel,” she said.”What I can tell you is that the immigrant parents are the most humble, grateful, gracious people, many of whom came here because they believed that if they worked hard they would eventually be able to apply for residency.”That’s what most people don’t understand, if you entered illegally, you must return to your country of origin, and there’s a 10 year wait. So where does that leave my students who were carried across the border as infants? They are stuck and forced to hide in the shadows.”The students are desperate to stay and complete their education. One 16- year-old even got married to an American citizen in the belief it would prevent any move to have her deported – he was wrong.Another one of Yvonne’s students, 16-year-old Jose Razo, who has accumulated a box full of academic awards faced being forced to return to a country heleft when he was two. Grateful pupils started to write personal, autobiographical thank you notes to donors which Yvonne kept and turned into a book ‘Documented Dreams’.”We ask people for a donation in return for the book, the minimum is $25 dollars but the sky is the limit.”I know we can’t go on raising money indefinitely, really what I need is for someone like Bono to write me acheque every term! If he bought a book for $1m that would solve my problems!” Yvonne’s fund raising won her anaward in memory of Martin Luther King, and she has brought the issue nationwide in the New York Times and on TV.”We can’t abandon these children. If you could just get Bono to buy one of our books I would be very happy!”richard.sullivan@nth.sundayworld.comArizona’s immigration crackdown – the impact on children (8:30) | PRI’s The WorldArizona’s immigration crackdown – the impact on children

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