Teaching Profession

Should Teachers Talk to Students About Immigration Sweeps?

By Madeline Will — February 16, 2017 4 min read
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This post first appeared on the Teaching Now blog.

Last week, immigration raids across the country resulted in the arrest of more than 680 people—and a lot of fear and uncertainty that has made its way into the classroom.

The U.S. immigration agency, known as ICE, carried out large-scale immigration sweeps last week across several cities, including Los Angeles, San Antonio, Chicago, Atlanta, and New York City. About 75 percent of the immigrants who were arrested had committed crimes in the U.S., including homicide, sexual assault, drug trafficking, and drunk driving. The others were immigration fugitives or had illegally re-entered the country after being removed, according to a statement from Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.

In Austin, Texas, the raids have sparked a debate between the local teachers’ union and the school district: Do teachers have a responsibility to provide legal information to their students who may be undocumented or who might have undocumented relatives? How can teachers best support their students who might be scared? Can (or should) they leave such a hot-button issue out of the classroom entirely?

The local teachers’ union, Education Austin, said it had received reports that some parents, afraid of running into ICE agents near the school or at bus stops, were keeping their children home from school. The Austin American-Statesman reported that the teachers’ union then held a training session on immigration law and rights, and 250 educators attended.

Education Austin then provided its 3,000 members resources on immigration raids, including a flier titled “What to do if ICE comes to your door.” (Here’s what the flier looks like—advice includes not opening doors and not signing anything without a lawyer present.) Some of the teachers then distributed that material to their students.

But the Statesman reported that some principals within the Austin Independent School District have prohibited the teachers at their school from distributing those materials. The district’s general counsel had sent a memo reminding educators that they cannot speak to “political affiliation, views, protests, advocacy, or other controversial issues or topics.” Teachers also cannot distribute resources that are partisan or advocate for students to act unlawfully, the memo said.

The teachers’ union now plans to seek its own legal guidance on the issue, the Statesman reported.

“Students are in crisis,” Education Austin President Ken Zarifis told the Austin American-Statesman. “Where the students will turn to first outside of their household is their teacher and their school. If we don’t provide the information to them, we’re doing them a disservice. We believe it is a moral imperative to share this information with the families throughout this school district. We are still hopeful that the district will see this imperative and assist their families with knowledge and information ... that will give them options and choices of what to do and how to protect their family.”

According to the Austin Monitor, the Austin district released a statement on Wednesday saying that it will “continue to provide and update information for our campus staff to assist them in better serving our students. ... The safety and security of our students is our top priority.”

School districts across the country have been grappling with how to best support their undocumented students amid the uncertainty under President Donald Trump’s administration. Trump has pledged to crack down on illegal immigrants, although he hasn’t yet decided on his plan for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has granted temporary deportation reprieves for more than 740,000 young undocumented immigrants.

Other districts are also responding to the recent immigration raids: The superintendent of Charlotte, N.C., public schools told the Charlotte Observer she is seeking a meeting with law enforcement to ask that they keep the sweeps away from district schools and bus stops. And several districts, including Los Angeles Unified, have declared themselves safe zones, where they will not cooperate with immigration enforcement.

As for teachers themselves, it’s a tricky balance among personal activism, supporting their students, and following district rules. Immediately after the election, some teachers were reprimanded or banned from wearing safety pins in class to show support for people of color, immigrants, members of the LGBT community, and other marginalized groups. And last fall, Seattle teachers received some backlash from wearing Black Lives Matter shirts as a demonstration of support for the movement.

Montserrat Garibay, the vice president of Education Austin and a former undocumented student herself, told news station KVUE that teachers are supposed to help students in need. “That’s what we do as educators—every single day,” she said. “Why is it different now?”

Image via Getty


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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.