Educators and Advocates Brace for Harsher Stance on Immigration Under Trump
President-elect Donald Trump campaigned on promises to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and repeal a program that grants temporary protection to young immigrants who were illegally brought to the United States as children.
With Trump now set to take office in mid-January, immigration advocates and school officials across the nation are bracing for the prospect that he may keep his word, and undertake one of the most aggressive immigration enforcement operations in modern American history.
"Most analysts don't doubt that [Trump] will follow through in implementing a number of the harsher proposals that he's put forth," said Margie McHugh, the director of the Migration Policy Institute's National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy.
For the millions of K-12 students who are the children of undocumented immigrants, or who are undocumented themselves, the effects of the Trump administration's policies could be widespread, advocates say: disrupted home lives, separation of families, revoked deportation reprieves, and a rolling back of civil rights enforcement that has over the years exposed practices in some school districts that made it difficult for immigrants to enroll.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, commonly known as DACA, could be an initial target of the Trump administration, advocates say.
President Barack Obama ordered DACA in 2012, establishing that undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children could receive a temporary work authorization and protection from deportation. The policy offers a two-year stay to young unauthorized immigrants who can prove they meet a number of criteria, including that they came to the U.S. before age 16, have lived here for at least five years continuously, attend or graduated from high school or college, and have no criminal convictions.
Because the program was created through executive authority, the incoming president could alter or end DACA as part of his plan to crack down on illegal immigration.
Since his Nov. 8 election upset, Trump has walked back talk of immediately deporting all of the nation's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. In recent days, he's vowed to first round up immigrants with criminal records as his first order of business.
That would seem to offer some breathing room for so-called "Dreamers," the main beneficiaries of DACA.
"Of all the populations that one may take action against, this is the population usually thought to be at the bottom of the priority list," said McHugh of the Migration Policy Institute.
Nonetheless, civil rights organizations and immigrant advocacy groups are bracing for battles on that front and others.
"We've seen that providing education for all individuals regardless of immigration status, is something that builds our country, our communities and our economy," said Nicholas Espíritu, a Los-Angeles-based lawyer with the National Immigration Law Center. "It's essential that we continue to protect this fundamental right."
Obama has urged Trump and the incoming administration "to think long and hard before they are endangering that status of what for all practical purposes are American kids."
"They've gone to school. They have pledged allegiance to the flag. Some of them have joined the military. They've enrolled in school," Obama said at White House news conference after the election. "By definition, if they're part of this program, they are solid, wonderful young people of good character."
In the days after the election, activist Mariela Gabriela "Gaby" Pacheco, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador, took to social media to encourage people to share their stories and why the president-elect should re-consider his stance on deportation. Pacheco is the program director at The Dream.US, a philanthropic organization that funds scholarships for Dreamers.
"We know and understand the anxieties that the immigrant community, and specifically the students, have," Pacheco said.
Trying to Calm Fears
U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, a California Democrat, is asking the Obama administration to shield the identities of "Dreamers."
During the application process, DACA recipients must submit sensitive information to the federal government, including relatives' home addresses. The information has been handed over with the good-faith understanding that it would not be used against them or family members, she wrote in a letter to the president.
Future administrations could abandon that agreement and use the information to carry out deportations, Chu warned.
"When we asked immigrants to come out of the shadows, we never imagined the election of a candidate who ran on a policy of mass deportation," Chu said in a statement.
Three Democratic members of Congress—U.S. Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Lucille Roybal-Allard of California and U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois—have asked Obama to issue pardons to DACA recipients for entering the country illegally or overstaying visas; a pardon would protect them from deportation, not change their immigrant status. Legal experts remain split on whether the president has the authority to do so.
Immigration is policy that hits home in Chu's district and across her home state. Of the 740,000-plus people across the country protected under DACA, about 1 in 3 are estimated to live in California.
Officials there stand ready to defy the Trump administration if it pursues an aggressive effort to deport unauthorized immigrants.
The Los Angeles Unified school board voted the week after the election to reaffirm its district policy that bars federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from school campuses without approval from the superintendent and the district's lawyers.
Amid increasing reports of post-election harassment and violence in schools, districts across the country, from New Mexico to New York state, are taking similar steps to ensure families are aware of their rights and to make them feel safe in school.
To address common questions posed by immigrant students and their families, the Denver public schools produced a fact sheet and letter recommending, among other things, that students who've already received reprieve through DACA contact immigration lawyers immediately.
As of 2014, about 3.9 million students in U.S. public and private schools, roughly 7 percent of all K-12 students, are the children of undocumented immigrants, the Washington-based Pew Research Center estimates.
Any enforcement action taken against these parents would upend any semblance of stability for their children, both at home and school, researchers have found. A 2015 study from the Urban Institute and Migration Policy Institute found that children with deported or detained immigrant parents face difficulty accessing early education, health care, and social services.
The threat of exposing the immigration status of a family member could also discourage some students from enrolling in school, advocates say.
The U.S. departments of Justice and Education have issued very clear guidance on this topic, reminding school districts to refrain from using policies and practices that discourage students from enrolling in school because they, or their parents, may not have legal immigration status. Plyler v. Doe, the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, declared that children are entitled to receive a free public K-12 education in the United States regardless of their immigration status.
That hasn't stopped some districts from trying in more recent years, especially as unaccompanied minors, many of them fleeing poverty and violence in Central American countries, surged into some communities.
In New York state, a joint investigation in 2015 by the attorney general's office and education department found a pattern of illegal enrollment requirements, including schools that made students or their guardians present Social Security cards, across at least 20 districts. That happened despite repeated warnings from federal and state agencies.
Defiance of state and federal statutes could happen more frequently during the Trump administration, said Thomas Saenz, the president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
McHugh, with the Migration Policy Institute, said more school districts could look to read the "body language" of the president-elect's administration, gauging their willingness to monitor violations.
The Education Department often issues guidance as an implicit threat to intervene on civil rights violations. How and if that happens during the Trump administration remains unclear.
"I don't know whether we can expect that from the incoming administration," Saenz said.
Civil rights leaders and advocates are also deeply concerned about how members of certain religious groups will be treated in a Trump administration, particularly Muslims whom the president-elect said during the campaign should be subjected to "extreme vetting" or banned outright from entering the U.S. At least one member of his presidential transition team has floated the idea of reinstating a registry system set up after the Sept. 11 terror attacks for immigrants from countries where terrorists are active. That talk has been widely condemned and called out for echoing the racist and xenophobic policies that led to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
This comes following a year in which hate crimes against Muslim Americans and others reached historic highs. Anti-Muslim hate crimes rose 67 percent, according to the latest numbers released in the FBI's Hate Crime Statistics report.
While there are no firm estimates showing how many students in U.S. schools are Muslim, the numbers are growing. Arabic and Somali—languages commonly spoken by Muslim students—are among the top three languages for English-learners in the nation's schools.
"Our concerns range from the apocalyptic to the benign," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization.
"We have students out there wondering if their families are going to be deported," Hooper said. "They want reassurance. We just don't know the answer to that right now."
Vol. 36, Issue 14, Page 16Published in Print: November 30, 2016, as K-12 Braces for Trump's Immigration Stance