How Martin Luther King Jr changed the lives of an Irish teacher in Arizona and her student's lives and outlooks

Arizona school teacher Yvonne Watterson from Derry won the 2008 Martin Luther King, Jr. award for standing up for “Dream” children whose parents brought them to America illegally when they were very young. She recounts how King’s message changed their and her lives.

Each of us from a different corner of the world, each of us an immigrant in Arizona, we wanted to make a point with our simple declaration – “We’re all immigrants” –  the point being that America makes immigrants of us all.

In 2007 in Phoenix, Arizona, it was a point lost on too many people. At the time, I was principal of a small high school in Phoenix. My students were mostly poor, their families living at or below the federal poverty level; they weren’t expected to go to college. But at that school, we were doing something special. Students for whom society had the lowest expectations were beating the odds. They were taking college and high school courses simultaneously, some of them graduating from high school and college at the same time.

The “early college” model was working. The school that had languished for years with attendance and drop-out rates at 50% was now boasting a 1.7% drop out rate. The attendance rate was 96%. The students were proving that, yes, they could “do college.”

Proposition 300

Then everything changed.  Proposition 300 which was passed overwhelmingly by Arizona’s voters, stipulated that college students who were not legal United States citizens or who were “without lawful immigration status” had to pay out-of-state tuition. It meant that they were no longer eligible for financial assistance using state money. And that meant that as principal, I could no longer use state funding – generated by student enrollment and attendance – to pay college tuition for those students who could not prove residency.

There were 37 students affected by the law, students whose parents had brought them to the United States when they were babies. In order to provide them the same educational opportunities as their American-born peers, I had to come up with $86,000. And I had to do it on my own time.

When I broke the news to those 37 students, they were devastated. Their tears forced me into foreign territory – the media. I contacted the Arizona Republic and columnist Ed Montini wrote a column - “Unintended Consequences of Prop 300?” I was convinced that voters didn’t realize that children would be affected by the law. Well, I was wholly unprepared for the negative response, for the hate-filled messages that filled the newspaper’s internet site.

By all accounts, the consequences were most definitely intended.  A TV appearance on Horizonte and another column in the Republic helped change some hearts and minds. Some readers began to see beyond the stereotypes as they learned of the dreams of aspiring architects, lawyers, doctors, and entrepreneurs.

Donations began pouring in, and, anonymously, my students began writing thank you letters. Every letter told a story, a story of a child who took his or her first steps on Arizona soil, who said the Pledge of Allegiance every day at elementary school, who believed their teacher’s assurances that all their dreams would come true if they simply stayed in school.

In some ways, it felt like I wasn’t in the America I had once dreamed of. In fact, it felt eerily familiar and took me back to my student teaching days in Belfast, Northern Ireland. In the early 1980s, many of my students were touched by sectarian violence beyond the school playground. And so I learned very early on that schools are and should be sacred places. Places of hope, of possibility. Places where dreams begin.

I still feel that way. I am an immigrant, an American dreamer. Anything is possible here. I have to believe in, or at least aspire to, the America that Tom Wolfe described, “It is a fabulous country, the only fabulous country; it is the only place where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time.”

For our efforts in 2008, we raised enough money to pay college tuition for those 37 students. The Hispanic Institute of Social Issues published their letters in a bilingual book, “Documented Dreams,” and everyone who contributed received a copy. On behalf of those resilient immigrant students, I accepted the City of Phoenix Martin Luther King Living the Dream Award in January 2008. Sadly, I don’t know what became of them. Some of them, I’m sure, left Arizona, beaten down by SB1070, the DREAM Act unrealized, comprehensive immigration reform elusive still.  This weekend, as we remember the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, I cannot help but wonder if there will ever be a place at the table for every needy child. What do you think?

Not too long ago, I asked our daughter, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Without missing a beat, she said, “Happy.”

She’s off to a great start. Born in America to legal residents, she has health insurance, a little savings account, a passport. She has a City of Phoenix library card. In several years, she’ll have a driver’s license; soon after that, she’ll be able to vote. She has a Social  Security number, so she’ll be able to work. She is well documented. Sadly, there are other daughters and sons in this state who also want to be happy when they grow up but through no fault of their own, they lack the documentation that would make their pursuit of happiness more than just a dream. They are the children of immigrants who have become the collateral damage in this war over immigration. As Seamus Heaney once said, when hearts harden, dreams diminish and possibilities narrow for these young people. Unlike my daughter, who can join me today to openly celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, these students have no choice other than to live in the shadows, afraid of being forced to leave the country they have always called home.

Anna Quindlen writes that “Immigration is never about today; it is always about tomorrow.” It is always about the kind of tomorrow Dr. King described in his dream of an America with a place at the table for children of every race … and room at the inn for every needy child. The kind of tomorrow I dreamed about as a little girl in Northern Ireland where one day Catholics and Protestants would attend the same schools.

Basically, Immigration is an exercise in hope, in deferred gratification, and deferred dreams. Dr. King reminded us, “disappointment is finite, but hope must remain infinite.”

The immigrant children among us have little other than hope, but recently they have had to face adversity and disappointment that no child should have to face: disappointed that Proposition 300 limited their access to a college education, disappointed that the DREAM Act died in the Senate, disappointed that there are those who are willing to discard them while, at the same time, to import professionals from other countries to do the very jobs these talented students are qualified to do!

I marvel at the resilience of these young men and women, many of whom have taken their first steps on Arizona soil, placed their hands on their hearts every day to pledge allegiance to the flag of the only country they’ve ever known, and with dedication and gratitude have risen to the educational and social challenges they have faced.

This prestigious award belongs to these undocumented dreamers and their undaunted immigrant spirit. It also belongs to their tireless, courageous champions who fly below the radar.

In closing, I thank the Arizona Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee for this beautiful morning, and from the bottom of my heart I thank the Phoenix Human Relations Commission and the city of Phoenix Equal Opportunity Department for their courage in presenting this award which I hope is the first step in breaking the silence about these children, these future lawyers, engineers, teachers, doctors.

They are here. They are here. We need to listen to their dreams and we need to act to make those dreams a reality.

* Originally published in 2015.