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In Michigan, Undocumented Immigrants Form Learning Pod So They Won't Lose Their Jobs


Nicole, a kindergartner, and Angelique, a third grader, make a poster welcoming a regular visitor to the learning hub who teaches the children how to care for their pets: Persephone the guinea pig and George Kiwi the turtle.
Movimiento Cosecha/Ann Arbor Community Learning Center

Nicole, a kindergartner, and Angelique, a third grader, make a poster welcoming a regular visitor to the learning hub who teaches the children how to care for their pets: Persephone the guinea pig and George Kiwi the turtle.

When public schools in Ann Arbor, Mich., closed last spring Betty, an undocumented domestic worker, feared losing her job if she stayed home to help her children navigate virtual schooling.

But even if she could stay home, she worried that she didn't have the English proficiency to support her daughter, a ninth-grader at a public high school in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"I know that I'd be able to help my son who is in fifth grade, but not my daughter," said Betty, who asked that her family be identified only by first names because of their immigration status.

Around the same time, Paula Manrique Pfeffer, a graduate education student at the University of Michigan, found herself being asked to supervise learning pods that were starting to form among families with means.

"I had so many job offers starting at $40 dollars per hour but I kept thinking about other students in need," she said.

As an activist with Movimento Cosecha, an immigrant-led advocacy group, she knew what parents like Betty were going through.

So she organized a group of undocumented families and created an in person learning hub for kids grades K thru 12. For the past six weeks, 24 students at Ann Arbor Community Learning Center have been doing their virtual classwork on computers provided by the public school district, with the support of the center's volunteers and teachers.

Support comes from

The center is hosted by the Church of the Good Shepherd, which has a long history of being an ally to local undocumented families. Back in 2017, it declared itself a sanctuary church to house undocumented immigrants facing a threat of deportation.

When the pandemic hit, the church stopped holding worship in person and the Rev. Deborah Dean-Ware said the opportunity to host the learning center was a way for their congregation to engage in its mission.

"To know that our building is being utilized in this way has been gratifying for the church," she said. "It's just a new way for us to live into being a sanctuary congregation."

There are an estimated 7.6 million undocumented workers in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center. They often earn low wages and lack unemployment insurance or other social safety net. They are also a high risk group for COVID-19, and are less likely than the general population to be able to get the medical care they need if they get it.

Manrique says coordinating a learning center for undocumented families during a pandemic isn't just about creating a safe place for students, but also recognizing other challenges they face, like not having a driver's license.

"The first day of school we realized that the families need transportation, because a lot of them are undocumented and don't want to drive. So we got a car and a driver to pick them up and drop them off," Manrique said.

The learning hub is funded entirely by donations, and depends on parents like Betty who volunteers to clean the church after school.

The donations have allowed Manrique to hire Robin Armstrong, a licensed Montessori teacher and two part-time bilingual assistants to help with assignments the children get from their teachers in the virtual classrooms.

"As a Montessori teacher, it's very important for me to make sure they have the opportunity to engage in activities beyond the academic part," she said, adding that the kids go out on the church grounds to explore nature, play games and do some gardening.

Armstrong says the hardest part has been communicating through face coverings.

"It's hard to hear the kids through the mask," she said. "For some of the kids here we are trying to work on their language skills including reading and letter sounds and it's difficult to do that when I can't see their mouth and they can't see mine."

But the teacher said she has seen a huge positive impact for the kids at the hub and many students are having an easier time keeping up with their regular school's workload since coming to the center.

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