Standing Up for the Undocumented

Teachers, principals and school districts nationwide are grappling with how to respond to the increase in deportations and heightened fears of students and families.

While undocumented students and their families have always lived with the daily fear of deportation, the day Donald Trump was elected president marked a point at which many families began vocalizing their fears within the safety of school walls. Parents are seeking reassurance that their children’s records won’t be released to immigration officials; students are expressing worry that their parents or other family members will be deported before they get home from school.

In the past month, anxiety over deportations significantly increased as nearly 700 undocumented immigrants were arrested during targeted raids in at least six states. Then, last week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released new guidelines that broadened the types of undocumented immigrants who can be detained beyond those who have committed “serious crimes.” The guidelines also provided immigration officials greater discretion over whom to pursue.

Immigrant-rights advocates say that such broad guidelines will tear otherwise law-abiding families apart. The number of undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for more than a decade has been steadily increasing, as overall numbers of those who come here without papers have declined. The result is more undocumented immigrants who have started families, built lives and sent their children to school in the United States.

Roughly 50 million students were enrolled in U.S. public elementary and secondary schools in 2012; seven percent of those students had at least one undocumented parent. As The Atlantic succinctly put it in 2016, “immigration policy is education policy.”

Students are being kept home from school due to deportation fears. Those who do attend bring physical and emotional stress with them into classrooms and may have difficulty focusing on academics. Teachers are spending parent-teacher conferences counseling families on how to prepare for possible deportation, not discussing their children’s school performance.

Teachers are often the first resource for families in need because they have established a trusting relationship. There are resources available for teachers when counseling undocumented families, including this one from the National Immigration Law Center. If you haven’t seen the Teaching Tolerance post on what to say to students regarding immigration orders, read it here.

In an attempt to ease concerns from families, as well as provide clear direction for teachers and staff, some school districts are taking a public stand to protect and educate students who may be undocumented. A few examples:

  • Chicago Public Schools’ Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson advised principals not to let immigration officials into schools without criminal warrants. Nearby Evanston School District 202’s school board passed a “safe haven” resolution that, among other directives, prohibits employees, contractors or volunteers from inquiring about students’ immigration statuses or releasing such information to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) without a court order to do so.
  • The Denver Public Schools Board of Education passed a resolution that promised schools would not share information about students unless required by law, and would fight to protect students’ legal rights.
  • Sacramento City Unified School District, along with several other California districts, adopted a “safe haven” policy that provides a range of inclusive efforts, from promoting tolerance over hate speech to offering focused staff development opportunities.

It’s important to note that ICE continues to define schools as “sensitive locations” and therefore will avoid engaging in “enforcement actions” on school property. School districts that promise to keep ICE away from schools and student records are providing more of a symbolic—but still important—way to show solidarity with undocumented families.

Even schools under the safe haven banner are trying to understand what exactly that designation means for their particular students. Some schools are partnering with local governments and nonprofit organizations to provide families with information about their legal rights. Schools are also developing rapid-response networks that can help children whose family members have been detained and also develop procedures in case emergency contacts can’t be reached. Some schools are considering connecting families directly to legal representation.

Schools are uniquely qualified to not only provide essential support for students from undocumented families, but also to remind others about the importance of being inclusive, equitable and respectful. After all, every child in the United States has the right to an education, no matter their citizenship status.

This blog was produced in partnership with the anti-hate news project 500 Pens.

Applegate is a journalist, editor and storyteller who focuses on youth, family and social justice issues.

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