LAST FALL, SOON AFTER the Trump administration announced plans to rescind a program that offered protections to young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, south Texas charter high school teacher Hector Hernandez sat down and wrote a letter of resignation.
With a two-year permit that allows him to work legally in the U.S. set to expire this November, Hernandez realized he would likely have to give up the job he considers both a calling and a means of public service. The chance to become a teacher was also the driving force behind his decision to apply to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program when it first rolled out in 2012.
"I was devastated," recalls the 31-year-old Hernandez, who was 8 when his parents brought him from Mexico to Texas. "I thought it was best to tell my principal my situation right away and give the school enough time to find someone else."
But his supervisors at IDEA College Preparatory Weslaco, where Hernandez teaches European history and Advanced Placement human geography, didn't want him to quit. Instead, they had a question for him: How can we help? Hernandez and co-workers with similarly uncertain immigration statuses soon found themselves on a conference call with IDEA Public Schools founder and CEO Tom Torkelson, who had also brought in legal experts to answer their questions.
"We wanted them to know we're proud of them for showing up every day even though they might be fearful, that their students need to see them continue to march forward, and we're going to make sure they get support the support they need," Torkelson says.
In the Rio Grande Valley, where IDEA has 39 campuses serving nearly 26,000 students in grades K-12, the possibility of deportation is a constant, but often unspoken, fear for many of the region's residents, Torkelson says. Having teachers like Hernandez on staff – he's one of an estimated 9,000 "DACA-mented" educators nationally – "sends a powerful message to our students and our parents that there's somebody at their school who understands what they're going through," Torkelson says.
Torkelson isn't alone in his thinking. Across the country, in states both red and blue, at least 100 school districts have issued resolutions reaffirming a commitment to honor the constitutional rights of immigrant students who are in the country without legal status and to a long-held principle of schoolhouses as protected spaces.
And some schools have given practical advice to families. Chicago Public Schools, the nation's third-largest district, distributes tip sheets entitled "Know Your Safety Plan," with guidance from the National Immigrant Justice Center. Among the recommendations for parents: authorizing someone else to pick up their children at school, and to make legal and medical decisions on their behalf in the event they are detained by authorities.
In Tucson, Arizona, the local school board passed a resolution stating that it "will support all students equally, whether their immigration status is documented or undocumented." Similar action has been taken in other communities, including Portland, Maine, where a third of the 7,000 students are new to the United States and speak upward of 60 different languages. The local school board has passed measures condemning hate speech and reaffirming schools as safe havens, and district officials say they prioritize partnerships with local organizations to boost engagement by immigrant students and their parents.
"There's a lot of angry rhetoric in Washington, D.C., but as a community we're coming together to say, 'Not here,'" Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana says. "We're going to stand up for each other."
By the numbers
In 2014, just over 1 million immigrant youth without legal status between the ages of 3-17 were enrolled in public schools, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. The institute estimates that 5 million children under age 18 are living with at least one parent who is in the country illegally. The vast majority of those minors – nearly 80 percent – are themselves U.S. citizens, according to the institute.
While DACA remains in legal limbo, the educational rights of children no matter their legal status were codified by the Supreme Court in 1982. In Plyler vs. Doe, the justices held that age-appropriate children are entitled to a K-12 public education regardless of their immigration status. Districts also can't implement policies or practices that might have a chilling effect on immigrant student enrollment, such as requiring Social Security numbers on paperwork.
Plyler vs. Doe was back in the headlines in late April after Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told a congressional committee it was "a local community decision" whether students suspected of being in the country illegally would be reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She walked back her remark in a subsequent hearing two weeks later.
School districts have generally done a solid job of complying with the high court ruling for decades, says Margie McHugh, who oversees education issues for the Migration Policy Institute. But DeVos' remarks quickly overshadowed that track record, in part because uncertainty and tensions are running high, McHugh says. While immigration enforcement actions at or near schools are not commonplace, the past year has seen a "loosening of the categories of people who will be pursued for deportation," she says. That, coupled with fiery political rhetoric – including from President Donald Trump – has put many immigrant communities on edge. "People are very close to panic," McHugh adds.
The institute connects staff members from about 40 school districts across the country to share ideas and learn new approaches to educating and supporting immigrant students, especially those who are newer arrivals to the U.S. Participants range from big cities like Los Angeles to small rural districts in Southern states. Since Trump took office, the institute has seen more districts in the network adding policies that formally codify their commitment to Plyler vs. Doe and that better prepare staff to protect students' rights, McHugh says.
Schools, along with churches and hospitals, have generally been considered protected spaces when it comes to immigration enforcement, a designation formalized by a 2011 "sensitive locations" policy memo issued by John Morton, director of ICE during the Obama administration. On its website, ICE states that the sensitive locations policy remains in effect and includes "schools, such as known and licensed daycares, pre-schools and other early learning programs; primary schools; secondary schools; post-secondary schools up to and including colleges and universities; as well as scholastic or education-related activities or events, and school bus stops that are marked and/or known to the officer, during periods when school children are present at the stop." Similar guidance is echoed on the Department of Education's website, as well, alongside instructions for reporting suspected violations.
But the 2011 memo "only has legal effect to the extent that it's honored," says Dina Francesca Haynes, a professor at New England Law and an expert in immigration policy. Several high-profile instances have been reported of ICE officers going after what Haynes called "low-hanging fruit" – immigrants in the country illegally who were at hospitals or courthouses, for example. In other recent cases, ICE sought to question a student about a family member's status – something that's typically only supposed to happen with a judicial warrant, she says. School officials would need to know to confirm that the correct type of court order had been issued to fully protect students' rights, Haynes says.
To be sure, an immigration enforcement action doesn't have to happen on campus for students to be affected. In the days and weeks following recent raids, local districts have reported skyrocketing absenteeism rates. In eastern Tennessee in April, for example, more than 500 students stayed home after an ICE raid at a meatpacking plant.
Educators are often the first to step up and help make sure students' basic needs are being met in the wake of these raids, and in "in many, many places people still see schools as allies," says
Maureen Costello, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance program, which provides classroom resources and support to educators on issues related to diversity, equity and social justice. But there's also little question that communities are on edge, as evidenced by the sharp increase she's seen in requests asking how to best prepare for possible immigration enforcement.
"We've gone from broader conversations about how to best provide emotional support to immigrant kids and families dealing with fear and stress to practical concerns about the very real threats many of them are facing," Costello says. "Teachers are asking us, 'Who's allowed to pick up a child at school if their parent is detained?' 'What should we do if ICE comes to campus or stops the field trip bus on an interstate highway?' This is the new reality."
Teachers' concerns about how to handle those kinds of scenarios were also the impetus for the National Education Association's "Safe Zones" resolution, says Emma Leheny, the union's lead immigration attorney. Adopted by more than 100 school districts nationwide, the resolution restates a commitment to the tenets of Plyler vs. Doe, as well as protecting students' rights and privacy.
The NEA encourages districts to translate its resolutions into multiple languages and make them readily available to families. Interestingly, the "Safe Zones" template is as an open-access document that can be either used in whole or in part by individual school boards as they craft their own resolutions. There's no obligation to attribute the material to the NEA, Leheny says.
"We want to be a support and source of information to keep the pathway to school open," Leheny says. ""We don't want to feed the confusion or fear that's out there, which is certainly disrupting the learning environment."
As for Hernandez, thanks to a federal judge's ruling that DHS must continue processing paperwork for existing DACA recipients, he was able to submit his renewal request. He learned recently he's received preliminary approval, which means he can turn his attention to preparing to return to the classroom.
"I'm relieved," Hernandez says. "It's not enough to totally stop worrying, but at least I have the next two years."
Adopted from U.S. News