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Texas immigration rights activist fights for transformation

Montserrat Garibay

Montserrat Garibay was 12 years old when her mother quietly sold the contents of their house in Mexico City, scooped up her and her 11-year-old sister with the things they could carry, and boarded a bus bound for Austin, Texas. They arrived on tourist visas, fleeing her father, who had continued to terrorize the family after her parents’ divorce.

They came for a new beginning, says Garibay. Now, 22 years later, she and her sister have transformed the courage and desperation behind that move into lives spent opening doors for others.

Garibay is vice president for certified employees of Education Austin/AFT/NEA. Although she has a degree from the University of Texas at Austin, taught prekindergarten for eight years, and is certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, she only became a citizen of the United States last year. Her sister, Julieta, who has a bachelor’s degree in nursing and a master’s in public health, is unable to work in her profession because she is still undocumented.

Eight years ago, the Garibay sisters and their mother started an organization at the University of Texas called the University Leadership Initiative. Its mission was to advocate for other undocumented students and help them pursue their educational dreams. Julieta was a co-founder of United We Dream with other students from other states. They were part of the booming national movement created by young people brought to the United States as children who aspired to get on the path to citizenship through education and public service. They are called DREAMers, after the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.

The time for immigration reform is NOW!

Garibay sisters and Randi Weingarten

Left to right, Montserrat Garibay, AFT President Randi Weingarten and Julieta Garibay marched in support of immigration reform in Los Angeles, Oct. 4. Photo by Armando Arorizo.

DREAMers are among the 11 million aspiring Americans who are hoping to find a pathway to citizenship through comprehensive immigration reform this year. In June, the Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. On Oct. 1, House Democrats put forward a bill that is similar to the Senate bill, but House Republicans have failed to act. Immigration rights activists are not going away, however.

For the month of October, the AFT,  the AFL-CIO, the Alliance for Citizenship, and community, faith and immigrant rights groups are acting  to keep up the momentum created by the passage of the Senate bill. The AFL-CIO has a listing of events across the country. Find one near you and join in.

Strength forged through struggle

Garibay is upbeat and positive about the future, but when she describes how she got to where she is today, you can hear how her personal strength has been forged by struggle. She and her sister spoke no English when they enrolled in middle school in Texas. Their mother cleaned houses. When she would drop them at school each morning, the girls would pray that she would return to pick them up in the afternoon.

But the family had a guardian angel, says Garibay, in the form of her first English-as-a-second-language teacher, Christina Hernandez. “She helped us navigate the system. She explained everything to my mom. I will not forget the way she engaged with families from Russia, Korea—all these different countries.”

Hernandez was also a great teacher, says Garibay. Within a year, her students were able to transfer to all-English classrooms. “She was the person who inspired me to be a teacher,” says Garibay.

Garibay’s mother was determined that her daughters would have a good education. After high school, with the cost of college tuition prohibitively high, her mother sent Montserrat back to Mexico to live with her aunt and uncle and study at the Universidad de Guanajuato. She studied pedagogy and taught ESL courses on the side to make some money.

“Even though I spoke Spanish, it was very hard,” says Garibay. “I felt like a stranger in my own country. I was outspoken. I was used to the way things were in the United States.”

After two years, her mother’s boss offered to sponsor her, and Garibay returned to Austin, enrolling first in community college and then at UT-Austin as an international student studying bilingual education and Spanish-language teaching. Eventually, the Austin school district became her sponsor. She hired a lawyer, got an H1-B visa that she renewed every three years, fell in love with a U.S. citizen and, in 2011, got married.

Her sister had a different experience, because the following year, Mexico changed its laws and barred U.S.-based students from paying in-state resident tuition in Mexico. Julieta stayed in Austin, enrolling in UT-Austin and becoming an immigration rights activist.

Keeping students safe at school

Garibay says her family’s immigration experience has had a tremendous impact on her. “When I was teaching, I had a lot of students that were facing deportation and family separation.” She remembers one day supervising her prekindergarten students on the playground when a police car passed. A 4-year-old ran to hide and she followed him.

“He said, ‘My mom told me when I see a cop, I had to run away.’ It was so heartbreaking!”

As a teacher, Garibay emulated her first ESL teacher to help children and their families. Now, as an AFT officer, she says, she is working to help families and teachers throughout the district who want their students to feel safe in school. “It’s been really empowering to see the AFT push for immigration reform. It speaks volumes about the work we do and how we engage in transformation.”

Garibay and her sister have beaten a path to Washington, D.C., lobbying for comprehensive immigration reform. “It is my responsibility as a citizen to advocate because these families cannot,” she says.