Standing up for undocumented students

In wake of Trump DACA order, communities must make young people feel safe

OVER 8,000 young people in Massachusetts — and 800,000 nationally — now face an uncertain future as a result of the Trump administration’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. Under DACA, undocumented immigrants who had come to the US before the age of 16, attended school or joined the military, and had not committed any serious crimes were able to apply for two-year postponements of deportation and eligible for work permits. With these federal protections removed, young people in communities across our country now feel the imminent possibility of deportation.

While some federal lawmakers have authored bills to protect these young people, for months now, Congress has failed to act. Now is the time to step up and take action locally. It is not enough to say that we welcome immigrants regardless of documentation. Our actions speak louder than our words. We must change the way we conduct business if undocumented youth and families are to believe that we truly want them in our communities and want them to thrive. Otherwise we will only deepen fear and mistrust, and further erode our sense of community.

I know because I’m on the front lines.

As both a teacher and Chelsea School Committee member, I’ve spoken with students and their families who now have a deep fear of all public institutions, even schools. When students are afraid of school, we see higher rates of absence, and on the days when my undocumented students do attend, the ongoing trauma they’re experiencing from the uncertain and hateful climate impedes their capacity to learn. My students are often unable to concentrate, worried whether their friends and families are safe.

Parents who once engaged with their community are now afraid to attend even seemingly non-threatening events, such as parent-teacher conferences. And students who have different backgrounds than their teachers have begun to fear them.

As bad as it is, there is an opportunity.

Leaders in and out of the classroom can — and must — take immediate steps to reassure and support undocumented students and create safety for their families so that they can be partners in educating our youth. Here’s a start.

Schools and Districts—Think about ways to make the school system a safe space for undocumented people. As school and district leaders, consider the message that “official” spaces send. Rather than always hosting school committee meetings in official spaces, collaborate with school-based educators to hear where undocumented community members will feel safe to show up, and innovate to meet people in trusted public spaces such as libraries and parks. Enter their communities with representatives that reflect their identities, languages, and cultures.

Provide language interpretation services when needed and distribute a summary of meetings in multiple languages afterwards.

And, most importantly, ensure the safety of our students’ data by pledging to deny immigration officials access to confidential student records and publicly reinforce your commitment to educate all students, regardless of their immigration status.

Educators—Understand your students’ identities by being present in their communities. Be advocates for your students. Show up to official spaces where your undocumented students and their families might be afraid to voice their opinions and testify on their behalf. Encourage your district to reinforce its dedication to protecting all students regardless of immigration status with specific protections and actions. Lastly, and most importantly, learn about the ways in which trauma impacts your students’ brains and their ability to learn so that you may respond appropriately and connect them to resources that can help.

Elected Officials—Make it clear that you are there to defend your undocumented students by supporting school systems in keeping student information confidential, increasing counseling services for undocumented youth who are likely to endure trauma, and encouraging educators to learn more about how to support their undocumented students and families.

The deep-seated fear that this crisis is brewing in our urban school communities can have profoundly negative and lasting consequences. Local government, school districts, and educators are in a unique position to advocate and protect undocumented youth now and beyond this moment. Yes, we are in a moment of a crisis, but it’s also a moment to build trust and to continue building communities.

Meet the Author
By changing the way we conduct our work, we are protecting schools as safe havens of learning. It takes all of us to make that possible.

Kelly Garcia is a member of the Chelsea School Committee, a special education teacher at Excel Academy Charter High School in East Boston, and a member of Educators for Excellence.