Special Report
Equity & Diversity

Teachers Rally Around Undocumented Students

By Corey Mitchell — March 06, 2018 6 min read
Claudia Martinez is a counselor at Boston Latin Academy and co-founder of Unafraid Educators, a committee within the Boston Teachers Union that supports undocumented students.
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At Boston’s Latin Academy, Claudia Martinez manages a caseload of hundreds of students who need help navigating high school and applying to college.

But on November 9, 2016—the day after Donald Trump’s election as president—the school counselor was thrust into another role.

Four immigrant students came into her office crying, trying to make sense of how Trump’s election would alter their lives. As she struggled to answer their questions, Martinez had a revelation: Trump’s election would change her life as well. Having arrived in the United States from Guatemala at age 9, Martinez knew the uncertainty that came with being an undocumented immigrant.

“If I didn’t know how to help my students that probably meant that lots of educators also didn’t know how,” Martinez said.

More than a year after the election, educators across the country are still struggling with how best to support immigrant students, keep them engaged in school during times of stress, and, in some cases, keep them safe.

As the founding chairwoman of “Unafraid Educators,” Martinez led a group of 30-plus teachers and counselors in Boston’s public schools who are supporting undocumented students and students whose parents don’t have legal immigration status. The Boston Teachers Union created the committee well before Trump’s election, but interest in the group and its work has exploded since.

English-learners, many of them immigrants or children of immigrants, make up nearly a third of students in the 56,000-student Boston public school system.

After the election, the “Unafraid Educators” distributed posters that read “Everyone is Welcome Here” to 125 district schools, hosted rallies, and raised $25,000 to start a scholarship fund for undocumented students. The union and district hosted “know your rights” workshops for parents, meetings to discuss plans for families facing the threat of deportations, and created a website called “We Dream Together,” that links educators, families, and students with resources.

Martinez worked with the district’s leaders to develop training for all counselors.

“If we are going to say, ‘We are people that care about you and support you,’ then we had to live up to that as well,” said Martinez.

After Trump’s election, leaders in many school systems took high-profile public stances to declare that federal agents cannot come to schools to arrest or even question students or families about their immigration status unless they produce a warrant, subpoena, or similar court order.

But a year after these districts declared their campuses as “safe zones” for undocumented students, educators such as Martinez are pondering how to keep immigrant students not only safe, but also engaged and motivated in their education.

With rumors of immigration raids swirling on social media, Regina Rogers, a teacher at East Boston High School, said students often pose a simple question: “I might be picked up tomorrow so why do I care about this?”

The answer is often complicated.

A Sense of Belonging

“It’s a really delicate balance...to validate how hard things are and to help them find hope when the outlook looks so bleak,” Martinez said.

Even as they wrestle with that dilemma, new challenges are emerging on the horizon. School districts across the country may encounter a new wave of undocumented immigrant students.

Over the next 18 months, the Trump administration will revoke Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, for immigrants from El Salvador and Haiti, countries devastated by earthquakes. TPS allows immigrants from countries in crisis to live and work in the United States legally.

“Whatever schools can do to make kids feel safe ... that can make them feel like they belong is critically important,” said Jean-Claude Brizard, a Haitian immigrant who is a senior fellow at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and formerly served as CEO of the Chicago public schools. “But there’s lots of stuff underneath that.”

While many schools focus on ways to keep law enforcement off campus, educators at Monseñor Oscar Romero Charter School—a 345-student school in Los Angeles—have taken a different tack, welcoming captains from the city police department to meet with parents and students.

The Los Angeles Police Department bars officers from initiating contact with people solely to determine their immigration status—and the police chief has pledged that stance won’t change despite calls from Trump for more cooperation on enforcement between local and federal authorities.

The charter network has deployed full-time social workers to its three campuses to help address an upturn in disciplinary issues sparked by the uncertainty in their students’ lives.

“I don’t think that I’ve ever had to help young people navigate more emotionally charged times,” said Yvette King-Berg, the executive director of the charter school network. “It has been a very stressful and high tension time.”

California established itself as a sanctuary state, with educators partnering with local government and law enforcement to resist the ramp-up in immigrant enforcement. State Superintendent Tom Torlakson has called for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to adhere to its “sensitive locations” guidance, which directs federal agents to avoid enforcement activities at schools, school bus stops, colleges and universities, and other education-related locations. But assurance that the state’s schools would be a safe zone took a hit last year when federal agents detained an undocumented father after he took his daughter to school in Los Angeles.

In Oakland, Calif., the district has a task force, hosting monthly workshops and film screenings to foster discussion about immigration. Roughly half the district’s students speak a language other than English at home and schools there have had an influx of students from Central America, China, and Yemen.

A sign on teacher Nora Paul-Schultz’s classroom door announces her support for undocumented students at Boston’s John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science.

The district, with input from students and community members, drafted a list of do’s—do create routines for students to discuss and react to current events while keeping the focus on learning—and don’ts—don’t force participation or allow adult emotions to supersede student needs.

The goal is “finding ways that are not just about fear-based response, but offer opportunities for understanding the beauty of diversity and how that enriches our community,” said Nicole Knight, the executive director of Oakland’s office of English-language learner and multilingual achievement.

In Boston, educators use personal narratives to get students talking. Rogers, the East Boston High teacher, coaches newcomer students through essays that explore their home countries, what they think of their lives now, and their hopes for the future.

Some students are reluctant to share details, perhaps with good reason. An East Boston High student identified in a school police report was arrested by immigration officers and has been detained for more than a year.

Many students are aware of the incident so Rogers said she doesn’t press students to reveal more than they are comfortable with, but she finds the experience of sorting out their feelings helps break down walls and build camaraderie, not just between teacher and students, but among classmates as well.

Martinez, the counselor who was undocumented for four years, got her green card when her mother married a United States citizen. She knows a path to citizenship, or at least legal status, is not easy.

Her goal is to make sure students without legal status know they have options before they decide to give up on school.

“It’s about saying, ‘Yes, this situation is really awful, there are very few ways to resolve it and I don’t have all the answers, but I’m committed to being here with you and to figuring it out,’” Martinez said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2018 edition of Education Week as Teachers Rally Around Undocumented Students

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