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Educators Struggle With Mixed Messages From Administration on Undocumented Students

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Educators have been wading through a sea of conflicting messages from President Trump’s administration about undocumented immigrants, trying to figure out how best to serve these students without breaking the law.

In 1982, the Supreme Court case Plyler vs. Doe established that it is unlawful to deny a student a K-12 education based on his or her citizenship status. But in the wake of the 2016 election, in which candidate Donald Trump campaigned on ending a national program that offers broader protections to some undocumented immigrants, most of whom who arrived in the United States as children, schools across the country have been trying to quell fears that have sprung up in their communities as undocumented students and their families worry they might be targeted at schools. The Department of Homeland Security recently announced that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program will remain in place for now, though its future remains vague.

But whether this announcement eases the fears in immigrant communities remains to be seen. President Trump’s often contradictory rhetoric, which one moment suggests the possibility of an immigration crackdown is “inevitable” then later extolls the value of programs set to support undocumented students, has made immigrants uneasy about to expect, according to some experts. Lawyers and an educator discussed some approaches for teaching communities about the laws and  practices currently in place to protect these students’ right to learn during a panel at the Education Writers Association National Seminar in Washington, D.C.

Why now?

Raul Font runs the Latino Community Development Agency, which provides resources and intermediate counseling services for a predominantly Hispanic community in Oklahoma. The agency existed long before Donald Trump was elected president, but since the 2016 campaign season, Font has seen fears spike and has had to adjust his programs for increased demand in the wake of the election.

Font said at first he was curious why this new presidential administration appeared to be causing more individuals to seek help, given that deportation has always been a potential threat for undocumented immigrants.

“They said, we fear this one doesn’t listen to his advisers, and that this [deportation] could happen,” Font said. “The fear of this administration and the rhetoric of this administration is very real to them.”

Avideh Moussavian, a senior policy attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, said that while historically ICE has avoided “sensitive locations,” such as churches or schools, as sites for arrests, there have been reports in recent months that officers appear to be testing the limits of these restrictions, for example, sometimes waiting at the corners of such properties. Even the word-of-mouth of possible changes in ICE practices has left many immigrants afraid to drop their children off at school, often choosing to keep them home instead, out of fear of arrest and deportation, Moussavian said.

Moussavian called on the administration to affirm that this policy regarding “sensitive locations” still is in place and advised that schools should post “Know Your Rights” materials and offer specific protocol training for their staff in the event of an ICE raid.

“Do not be intimidated,” she said.

Why ’sanctuary’ can be a misnomer

Colleges, universities and school districts across the country have tried to address immigrants’ fears by labeling their institutions a “sanctuary campus,” typically declaring a commitment to put student privacy first in the event of an ICE raid or police inquiry into status of students’ citizenship.

Gabriel Sandoval, who sits on the board for the Camino Nuevo Charter Academy and formerly advised the Obama administration on how to promote educational excellence for Hispanics, said the sanctuary label can be problematic and misleading. One concern with the label, which many schools in his state of California have adopted, is that it can imply schools are resisting the authority of the federal government and breaking the law.

The other issue, he notes, is that “the term sanctuary city means different things to different individuals.” Most commonly, he’s seen the term used across the state to reaffirm the support of the administration of teachers for students, regardless of immigration status. He adds if schools, whether on the elementary, secondary or postsecondary level, want to show further support, they can provide a list of nonprofit organizations or other services that will provide low-cost or free support to individuals who have run-ins with an immigration enforcement officer.

Sandoval also points to FERPA — the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act — protections, which also could protect schools from being pressured into divulging documentation status of its students.

DACA’s uncertain future

The largest question the Trump administration has raised for students has been the status of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allowed undocumented students under the age of 31 who were in school to defer deportation and acquire two-year work permits.

Trump campaigned on removing DACA protections and though his administration has decided to continue the program, Moussavian said there’s been a chilling effect for renewals.

A key fear among DACA recipients is that, if the policy is overturned, ICE could take the lists of applicants and recipients and use them to identify undocumented immigrants for deportation.

“The targeting of certain individuals, what that says, from an administration that talks out of one side of its mouth and says [DACA is] an important thing and that the president will do things that will make people proud of DACA, and on the other hand, doing nothing to negate fears and concerns that people have on the community level on whether or not the program will continue,” Moussavian said.

After the panel, the Department of Homeland Security issued a press release confirming that DACA will “remain in effect.” An FAQ on the website clarified that all current work permits will be honored, and none will be taken away before their expiration date.

Though the language of the update guarantees security for current DACA recipients, the future of the program has been left vague. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, a DHS spokeswoman said that the release should not be interpreted to “bear any relevance on the long-term future of that program.”

“The future of the DACA program continues to be under review with the administration,” she said.