Equity & Diversity

Immigration Changes Give Youths Hope

By Lesli A. Maxwell — July 17, 2012 5 min read
Tony Choi poses at a bus stop in Palisades Park, N.J. Despite having a degree in political science and Spanish, the young man is unable to find legal employment and depends on public transportation because he cannot apply for a driver's license. A U.S. resident for 14 years, he is among the estimated hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth who were brought to this country by their parents.

With more than 1.3 million undocumented young people now eligible to seek relief from deportation and gain work permits, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down much of Arizona’s immigration law, some educators and advocates hope that more college and career opportunities will open up for youths who were brought illegally to the United States as children.

The June 15 announcement that President Barack Obama’s administration would halt deportations of qualified undocumented youths younger than 30 and allow them to seek legal work permits bypasses Congress to implement portions of the DREAM Act, but falls well short of providing the path to citizenship proposed in that bill, which was blocked by Senate Republicans in 2010.

Under the administration’s “deferred action” policy, undocumented youths can be granted a deferment of removal proceedings for two years—with the possibility of renewal—and apply for work authorization if they came to the United States before age 16; are no older than 30; have lived in the United States for at least the past five consecutive years; graduated from or are currently in high school; are an honorably discharged military veteran; and have not been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor.

“I think this will give some of our students more assurance that they aren’t going to be sent back to a situation or a country that they don’t know or even remember,” said Michael J. Foran, the principal of the 2,700-student New Britain High School in New Britain, Conn. “I hope this means that our undocumented students will begin to have more meaningful opportunities and options.”

Though schools do not collect information on students’ immigration status, Mr. Foran said there are a “handful” of students in his school who could benefit from deferred action.

Ripples in Alabama

The deferred-action announcement, followed 10 days later by the Supreme Court decision overturning much of Arizona’s tough immigration law—including the provision that made it a state crime for undocumented immigrants to seek employment—has especially heartened some educators in Alabama. The Arizona ruling casts Alabama’s similar, but even tougher immigration law into uncertain legal territory, including the provision that requires school officials to ask for a students’ immigration status and report the data to the state education agency. That mandate was put on hold by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta.

“We won’t know for sure until we hear from the circuit court on this, but I am very, very hopeful that our students are going to be OK,” said William Lawrence, the principal of 1,200-student Foley Elementary School in Foley, Ala., a rural town near the Gulf Coast that is home to a large Mexican immigrant community. (“Immigration Law Casts Shadow Over Schooling in Alabama,” June 7, 2012.)

Mr. Lawrence believes the test of how immigrant parents and their children interpret these new developments on the immigration front will be borne out in enrollment.

“Since this law took effect last fall, we have not had one undocumented student come in to enroll,” he said. “My worry is that those kids are out there but they aren’t coming in to register.”

Mr. Lawrence also said that the deferred-action policy would “help keep more of our undocumented students in school longer,” now that they see the potential for more opportunities.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, in his reaction to the Supreme Court ruling on the Arizona law, was not ready to concede that his state’s law is in legal jeopardy.

“While Alabama’s anti-illegal immigration law has similar provisions as Arizona’s law, the laws are not identical,” he said in a statement.

Schools’ Role

With the new deferred-action policy soon to be in place, immigrant students and their families are likely to seek help from school staff members, according to legal experts and educators.

“It’s often a teacher or a counselor who is one of the few people who may know about a student’s undocumented status,” said Bethany Li, a staff lawyer for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is providing free legal clinics starting this month in New York City to advise immigrant youths who may be eligible for deferred action.

Eric Sparks, a spokesman for the Alexandria, Va.-based American School Counselor Association, said counselors will likely “play a role” in the policy change for undocumented students, both in their interactions with students and with families and advocacy organizations.

“While school counselors are not experts in immigration issues, [they] provide instruction, advisement, prevention and intervention activities designed to help all students achieve and plan for their future, regardless of their background,” he wrote in an email.

Some advocates say they will be doing outreach directly to schools to provide accurate information that educators can use as a resource for students. One is Moises Serrano, a 22-year-old immigrant from Mexico who has lived in rural North Carolina since he was 18 months old. He said schools should offer support, however informal, to students like him.

“I never told anyone about my status, because I never wanted anyone to know,” said Mr. Serrano, who is now an organizer with El Cambio, a youth organization based in Yadkinville, N.C., that is part of United We Dream, a national network pushing for immigration-policy changes.

After graduating from high school in 2007, Mr. Serrano has mostly worked in low-wage jobs in factories and as a farm worker.

“I didn’t learn until more than three years later that there are some private colleges and universities who’d enroll undocumented students and help out with financial aid,” he said.

Tony Choi, 23, an undocumented immigrant from South Korea, said it’s important for educators to be aware that not all undocumented students are Latino.

He is organizing a group of undocumented Asian youths in the New York-New Jersey region to push for the DREAM Act and support comprehensive immigration reform. He said one mission of the group, at least initially, is to create a “safe space” for undocumented Asian youths to open up about their status, he said.

“Growing up in New Jersey, I always felt like I was the only Asian student who was undocumented,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as Immigration Changes Give Youths Hope

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