Leaders must be allies for undocumented students

The fear in the town of Morristown, Tennessee, was palpable. A day after immigration agents raided a meatpacking plant there a few weeks ago, more than 500 young people stayed home from school. For many, they thought they would be safer at home than in school.

If you know the federal regulations, you know the opposite is true – no ICE arrests, interviews, or searches can take place at schools, hospitals, places of worship or demonstrations. In fact, undocumented students have a right to a public school education.

Yet, families, teachers and school leaders did not know what to do and instead reacted to the fear as opposed to acting with an informed and clear sense of students’ rights.

These days, with a 43% surge in detentions from last year in addition to extreme rhetoric targeting undocumented youth and families, school and district leaders have a critical role to play in protecting students, helping them to feel safe so that they can learn, and making sure local and federal laws are upheld. After all, our public schools serve about 750,000 undocumented children, and 3.9 million children whose parents are undocumented.

The key steps school leaders can take to support the undocumented students in their schools that I wrote about last summer still hold true: lead with student-centered school values; actively confront discrimination; boost dialogue; and disseminate information.

It’s critical that we don’t forget these moves and keep this issue front-and-center by explicitly espousing our values and advocating for our youth, especially our most vulnerable.

We must remain vigilant.

Stay up-to-date and keep your staff informed, especially your front office. To keep your staff and students safe, school and district leaders need to have the most up-to-date information on policies affecting undocumented immigrants, and regularly share that information with their staff. That means following both federal decisions as well as understanding what decisions are being made on the state level. First and foremost, all school and district staff must be aware that undocumented students have a right under federal law to attend public school. If immigration officers call your school requesting student and family information, your office staff members need to know how to respond. They should be familiar with the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which requires that schools keep student records confidential. Schools should only share student information with law or immigration enforcement officers if they are presented with a subpoena, court order, or warrant. Consider appointing one or two point people trained on these regulations to handle immigration matters at the school.  And if you serve high school students, make sure that your counselors and students are aware of the 17 states that provide in-state tuition support to undocumented students.

Reassure students that they are safe at school. Be sure your students and families are armed with the information they need to know that they are safe at school. This will not only show through your actions and the resources you provide, but through signage in key school areas that explicitly represent your school as a safe space. For example, one principal keeps a large sign in her front office stating, “I am an unafraid ally who works with and supports undocumented students and families.” Announcing your ally-ship and advocacy is important and can make a big difference for students in fear. In this effort, be sure to create a welcoming environment for families, avoid asking undocumented students to publicly self-identify, and be mindful of language used around campus (“undocumented” vs. “illegal”).

Tend to students’ social and emotional needs. Students are experiencing extreme trauma—potentially post-traumatic stress from the country they left and continued anxiety from the current climate in the U.S. In most cases, trauma ignites through an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced as physically or emotionally harmful and has lasting adverse effects. Stress in our youth can manifest in behavioral changes, developmental problems, and learning problems. In leading a trauma-sensitive school, school leaders need to ensure that our undocumented youth and families understand their rights to continue accessing school resources and programs (e.g. childcare, temporary assistance, Head Start).

Tending to social and emotional needs includes understanding the racial nuances in the immigration sphere. While Black undocumented immigrants make up only 7 percent of our non-citizens, they are deported at higher rates than any other immigrant group. As you engage in conversations about race in the United States, intersect that conversation with immigration. It is important to be aware of how the race of our undocumented youth impacts the experiences and challenges they face.

When support for the rights of undocumented students comes from the top—as we have seen from former NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina, who shared a letter with 1800+ school and district leaders outlining policies and procedures to keep undocumented students safe; and new NYC Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who created a comprehensive website in Houston for Dreamers; and Oakland Superintendent Kyla-Johnson-Trammell, who has continuously pledged public and courageous support for undocumented youth—school staff then feel more empowered to exercise their rights publicly and on behalf of students and families.

School and district leaders do nothing wrong or illegal by creating safe spaces for students: Advocate for our youth. Keep yourself and your team informed. Understand the nuances. Create a safe and welcoming environment.

Find additional resources including programming or workshops for educators, students, and families at ImmSchools.

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About the Author — Nancy Gutierrez

Dr. Nancy B. Gutierrez is the Chief Strategy Officer at the NYC Leadership Academy. A graduate of Harvard’s Doctor of Education Leadership program, she has spent much of her career as a teacher and principal in her home community of East San Jose, CA, a predominantly Mexican-American community, where she was named California’s ACSA Region 8 Middle School Principal of the Year.

School and district leaders do nothing wrong or illegal by creating safe spaces for students: Advocate for our youth. Keep yourself and your team informed. Understand the nuances. Create a safe and welcoming environment.

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