At least 100 educators gathered late Monday in Tacoma to learn what they can do to help students who feel threatened by reports of stepped up enforcement from U.S. immigration authorities.
They shared what they’re hearing from students — some who come to them in tears, afraid that their parents could be snatched away while they’re at school, or worried that deportation could put an end to their dream of a high school diploma.
“We have students who are undocumented — or worse, students who are citizens who have family members who are undocumented,” said Nathan Gibbs-Bowling, an Advanced Placement government teacher at Tacoma’s Lincoln High School and past state teacher of the year who helped organize the meeting. “When our students don’t feel safe, it impacts their learning.”
He said teachers need to know how they can help their students feel safe and how they can help inform students about their rights.
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The meeting, organized by Lincoln teachers, the Tacoma Education Association and members of Teachers United, included a panel of immigration rights advocates who answered questions and offered advice on how educators can best help students who might be confronted with immigration issues.
Panelists said that while the fears of young people and their families are real, it’s unlikely that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents will be staging immigration raids in public schools. Previous internal guidance for the agency had discouraged (but didn’t prohibit) arrests and searches in what were labeled “sensitive locations.” Those areas include schools, houses of worship and hospitals.
But Vanessa Torres-Hernandez, youth policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said such internal policies could be rescinded. And she urged educators to remain vigilant, noting that protections for students at school don’t extend to students on their way to a school bus stop.
Torres-Hernandez said immigration enforcement isn’t new under the administration of President Donald Trump. She noted that under President Barack Obama, federal officials “led one of the largest ramp-ups of immigration enforcement in our nation’s history.”
But, she said, what’s changed is who is being pursued.
When our students don’t feel safe, it impacts their learning.
Lincoln High School teacher Nathan Gibbs-Bowling
The previous administration focused on deportations of specific groups of immigrants who entered the country illegally.
“What’s changed is that the net has widened,” she said.
Tim Warden-Hertz, attorney with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Tacoma, said it is a federal misdemeanor to enter the United States without documentation. But, he said, federal authorities have broadened their enforcement scope to include many more people than those previously targeted.
“The priority is that there is no priority,” he said.
Trump has been viewed by immigrant advocates as a hard-liner on enforcement issues. But on Tuesday, The New York Times reported that the president might be considering a shift in policy, based on a conversation with television anchors that took place prior to his Tuesday address to Congress. Trump said he would be open to an immigration law overhaul that would grant legal status to millions who are in the country without permission, but who have not committed serious crimes, according to the Times.
Cinthia Illan-Vazquez of the Washington Dream Coalition touched on issues surrounding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students. That policy, launched by Obama, allowed children who were brought into the country without permission to apply for temporary deferments from deportation and made them eligible for work permits.
Illan-Vazquez said that during the presidential campaign, Trump pledged to do away with DACA, but has not moved to do so since taking office. Still, she said, uncertainty over the policy is keeping DACA students and their families “in limbo.”
Warden-Hertz said he doubts that DACA could be eliminated quickly, because it contains provisions that say recipients have to be given notice of any withdrawal and a chance to respond. He said what’s more likely is requests to renew a student’s expired DACA status might be declined, leading to the program’s slow death.
He also talked about the case of Daniel Ramirez Medina — the 23-year-old DACA recipient from Des Moines who was detained at the federal Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma after ICE agents came to his home searching for his father. Warden-Hertz said lawyers involved hope that it was an “isolated accident,” rather than the start of a larger attack on DACA. Ramirez has sued the federal government.
“We are hoping the government will come around,” Warden-Hertz said.
Torres-Hernandez warned about the presence of police who work as school resource officers in many public schools.
“School policing puts kids at risk of immigration consequences,” she said. She said the risk is particularly high if schools don’t draw a clear line between what is adolescent misconduct that should be handled by teachers and principals, and what is a law enforcement matter that could lead to arrest and prosecution. If schools call police for “low-level incidents,” they are putting students who lack legal immigration status at risk, she said.
What’s changed is that the net has widened.
Vanessa Torres-Hernandez, American Civil Liberties Union of Washington
“It’s really important to know whether the police who are in your building come from a department that has a policy of asking about immigration status,” Torres-Hernandez said.
Tacoma city officials have said recently that Tacoma police officers do not routinely check the immigration status of people they encounter on duty.
Other points made by Monday’s panelists:
▪ Public schools are prohibited from routinely collecting information on a student’s immigration status. But some teachers said schools may keep records that include a student’s place of birth.
Torres-Hernandez urged teachers to ask their districts for policies that would keep such information private under federal laws pertaining to the release of student records.
▪ Students can obtain a state identification card without offering proof of their immigration status. Warden-Hertz said it’s a way to prove who you are without proving where you’re from.
▪ Students who apply for state college financial aid need not worry that their private information will be disclosed to immigration officials, Illan-Vazquez said. She said state officials have pledged not to share that information.
Warden-Hertz said one effect of the recent focus on immigration is that people who may have been reluctant to ask questions about their legal status are coming forward to do so. He said, while not all immigrants who entered the U.S. without permission have options for staying in the country, some do. One example: children under age 18 who did not enter the country with permission, but who have suffered abuse or neglect, can apply for a special immigrant juvenile status.
And, Torres-Hernandez said, despite the need for increased vigilance, students need reassurances from their teachers.
“The message you should be sending students is that ‘This is a safe place, and we are not going to cooperate with immigration officials,’ ” she said.