Equity & Diversity

As Trump Weighs Fate of Immigrant Students, Schools Ponder Their Roles

By Corey Mitchell — January 26, 2017 5 min read
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By Francisco Vara-Orta and Corey Mitchell

As President Donald Trump weighs the fate of undocumented youth brought to the United States as children, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of K-12 children and the educators who serve them are bracing for upheaval.

This week, Trump has already signed executive orders that order construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, called for stripping federal funding from so-called “sanctuary cities” that shield immigrants, and announced new criteria that could make more undocumented immigrants priorities for deportation. He is also expected to sign an executive order that would suspend legal immigration from majority-Muslim nations such as Syria and Iran.

Denver schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg issued a joint statement on Thursday with officials from the Denver teachers’ union, Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, a children’s advocacy group, and the Colorado Education Association to denounce the moves.

“Immigrant and refugee students, families, educators, and staff are precious members of our Denver school communities and we greatly value them for the contributions they make to our schools and communities. We will do everything in our individual and collective power to protect them from deportation, criminalization, intimidation and harassment,” the statement read in part.

What Will Happen to DACA?

While the orders signed this week could have widespread impact, many are waiting for word on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, an Obama-administration policy that has granted temporary deportation reprieves for more than 740,000 young undocumented immigrants.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump promised to repeal that executive order as part of a widespread immigration crackdown.

Trump has said his administration will develop a plan for the young immigrants, but has yet to offer specifics. In an interview with ABC News this week, he said he will unveil his plans for the next four weeks.

Undocumented residents brought to this country as children “shouldn’t be very worried. I do have a big heart,” Trump said in the interview. “We’re going to take care of everybody ... Where you have great people that are here that have done a good job, they should be far less worried.”

Amid all the uncertainty, schools in cities like Denver and Nashville are working to reassure students that school is a safe, welcoming place.

“The United States is supposed to be a country of opportunity and we believe that immigrants bring a richness to our country that we should maximize,” Nashville schools Superintendent Shawn Joseph said. “It starts with educating them.”

The Nashville district is home to a large number of Islamic students, including children from Somalia, one of the majority-Muslim countries expected to be part of a Trump order suspending immigration. The district also has a large Kurdish community, many of whom come from other countries likely to be targeted in a suspension of legal immigration, including Iraq, Iran, and Syria.

Boasberg and Joseph are among more than 1,000 education leaders who have signed onto a petition requesting continued protection for “DREAMers,” young immigrants brought to this country as children.

“We’re going to be making sure all of our kids feel safe,” Joseph said. “We’re going to be making sure all of our kids get the support they need.”

Undocumented Students and Teachers Could Be Affected

Denver school district officials have voiced support for their undocumented students, as well as undocumented teachers, some of whom are recruited as part of a partnership with Teach for America. This week, Superintendent Tom Boasberg doubled down on reaffirming that support.

“In many cases, these teachers graduated from the best colleges and universities and have been terrific for us as are extraordinary in their qualifications and ability to connect with our students,” Boasberg said. “We have been advocating very hard for ensuring these teachers are allowed to continue serving our students and would be a loss otherwise after we’ve invested so much in them growing up and getting educated in the United States.”

Boasberg also offered similar words of support for the district’s undocumented students. He declined to give numbers for how many students and teachers are under DACA, explaining they don’t inquire about someone’s immigration status. Third party estimates cited by the Denver Post say about 10 to 20 percent of the Denver district’s enrollment are undocumented students. The district estimates about 37 percent of its overall student population are English-language learners, with the majority speaking Spanish, but many are native-born or here legally.

For now, Boasberg said the district will continue to hire undocumented teachers who are part of TFA’s program.

He said local and state officials have been supportive of the district’s stance, but acknowledged the rhetoric around immigration and race in the presidential campaign took a toll on the psyche of the Latino and immigrant populations in his district.

“We are a really diverse community and the attempt to divide people based on race and intolerance has been felt powerfully throughout the community,” he said. “The language around saying that diversity is a weakness is just to counter to the values that we have and has had a damaging effect.”

Boasberg said Colorado is a “purple” state politically—Hillary Clinton won the state’s electoral votes—but he hasn’t seen an uptick in opposition to the district’s vocal commitment to protecting those under DACA since Trump’s win.

“I think there are strong feelings on all sides of this issue, but we are trying to come together on finding a solution to ensure all members of our community feel respected,” he said. “We also are being vigilant in monitoring what’s next.”

Boasberg had elaborated in the phone interview Wednesday that refugee students add “an extraordinary richness” to the district because of the perspective and knowledge they bring into the classroom and share with their peers, saying it would also be an “extraordinary loss” to the community if refugees are banned or their intake heavily reduced.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.