ACA.coulibalyrelease128.010821

Thibodaux French teacher Djibril Coulibaly, 50, center, gets a big hug from family and friends after he was released from the ICE custody at the Pine Prairie Correctional Center on Thursday, January 7, 2021 in Pine Prairie, LA.

President Joe Biden’s first days in office signaled a welcome shift in U.S. immigration policy that may yet benefit Louisiana residents like Djibril Coulibaly, whose 19 years as a French teacher in places like St. Landry and Lafourche parishes have benefited our state and bolstered its shared culture.

Coulibaly, born in Mali, has taught French language in public schools since 2001, initially through the state-supported Council on Development of French in Louisiana, but since 2007, when his CODIFIL contract concluded, under an H-1B visa. That visa was imperiled by administrative error in 2010, and Coulibaly, a former U.S. Peace Corps interpreter, has sometimes struggled to keep intact his right to work in Louisiana. He’s never missed a meeting with immigration officials, Coulibaly’s supporters say.

Nonetheless, Coulibaly was inexplicably rounded up in December by immigration officials at his place of work, a Lafourche elementary school, and taken to federal confinement. Expulsion from the U.S. and return to Mali appeared imminent.

Imminent, it seems, until it was not. Early this month, Coulibaly’s attorney was informed by telephone that her client would be released without explanation the next day. That’s the life some of Louisiana’s productive visitors must live.

Coulibaly may have benefited from friends, colleagues and neighbors who’ve befriended him and worked passionately on his behalf. Warren Perrin, a CODIFIL board member, said supporters included the offices of U.S. Reps. Clay Higgins, R-Lafayette, and Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, and other elected leaders.

In that he could marshal such formidable support, Coulibaly was fortunate, though to measure by his prison exit — he wore an ankle monitor and tested positive for COVID-19, while en route home — he might not have appeared lucky at all. Many guest workers in Louisiana, including those in the building trades, seafood industry and health care fields, might have fared worse.

About 4% of Louisiana people are immigrants, many from Mexico, Central America and Southeast Asia. About 40% are naturalized citizens and their educational attainment is similar to that of native Louisianians. Many take jobs others won’t by inclination or can’t by training and preparation.

As a French teacher, Coulibaly serves in a role most native Louisianians cannot do. If he were not teaching French in Lafourche, the job may go unfilled. Moreover, his native French speaker status aligns with CODIFIL's goal of more than 50 years — to attract native speakers here to teach students whose family and cultural lineage is oftentimes Cajun or Creole French.

Presidents Ronald Reagan, G.H.W. Bush and George W. Bush encouraged relaxed borders to attract skilled and willing workers to the U.S., which is “graying” because of lower birth rates and fewer naturalizations. We need good people. If Biden can pry open the nation’s doors to them, safely and compassionately, he will create advantages for America and Louisiana.