Immigration

Should undocumented students be afraid? These are their rights.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

For many who have immigrated to the United States, President Donald Trump’s call for the U.S. to build a wall at the Mexican border, cut off funding for “sanctuary” cities and ban refugees have ignited fear and uncertainty.

For undocumented students, or those who have undocumented relatives, these fears are particularly salient.

At a Indianapolis Public Schools board meeting last week, Manuel Martinez, an IPS parent, called on the district to support families and help them learn about their rights. Parents and grandparents of IPS students are afraid they will be deported, he said.

“This is producing a toxic environment that doesn’t allow for kids to learn or succeed academically. Many parents are worried about being separated from their children,” Martinez said. “There is a sense that this could happen at any time.”

Here are some basics on the rights of undocumented students and what the district could do to support their families.

What is a “sanctuary” city, university or district?

Some U.S. cities and counties that have adopted policies meant to protect undocumented immigrants are known as sanctuaries. These areas often have policies that discourage law enforcement from asking about immigration status or prevent jails from holding people at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But the term “sanctuary” is ambiguous, and its use is different in the context of schools and universities, where it typically focuses on limiting ICE access to student information and campuses.

Could IPS become a “sanctuary” district?

Amid growing fear for the rights of immigrants, school districts joined cities and universities across the country in declaring themselves sanctuaries for undocumented students.

The National Immigration Law Center prepared a model resolution for school boards that includes a range of policies to protect the rights of immigrant families. The resolution aims to limit federal immigration authorities from gaining access to student information and campuses. It also provides resources for undocumented families.

Last week, board member Kelly Bentley suggested IPS should consider joining their ranks.

“We’ve got some families that probably feel quite vulnerable right now,” Bentley said. “We need to do everything we can to let our families know they are welcome in this district and that we are going to do everything we can do protect them.”

Some of the policies from the National Immigration Law Center, however, might be illegal in Indiana. Under a 2011 state law, a governmental body may not have a policy barring employees from communicating with federal officials about immigration status.

Even if the district does not adopt new policies, however, students already have protections.

Do undocumented students have a right to an education in K-12 schools?

Children are entitled to a free, public education regardless of their immigration status. That was decided more than three decades ago in the U.S. Supreme Court case Plyler vs. Doe, according to Michael Olivas, a professor at University of Houston Law Center and acting president of University of Houston Downtown.

“A student is a student is a student,” he said. “The protections are exactly the same.”

In fact, undocumented students are required by truancy laws to attend school, said Olivas, who wrote a book on the influence of Plyler.

While school districts occasionally hinder undocumented students from enrolling, those issues are typically resolved when attorneys step in, he said.

“As confusing as the system is,” Olivas said, “there have been no recent governmental actions that would affect K-12 students who may be out of status or whose parents may be out of status.”

Can school officials ask about immigration status?

School officials are not allowed ask students about their immigration status as a condition of enrollment or require children to provide Social Security numbers. Officials may ask students about their immigration status, however, if they have a legitimate reason, such as if a student is eligible for a scholarship they can only receive if they are in the country legally, Olivas said.

Can ICE agents get information from schools or come to a campus to detain students?

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act forbids schools from sharing identifiable student records without parental permission, and undocumented students have the same privacy rights as their peers. But law enforcement officers, including ICE agents, can still access student information in some situations.

“As long as a legitimate law enforcement claim is issued, than a school district or for that matter a college or university, must turn over data,” Olivas said.

Law enforcement officers could also detain children while they are at school if they have a tangible government interest, Olivas said. Although there have been some ICE raids of parents at schools, ICE policy discourages action at sensitive locations, including schools.

“School districts are not the place where we play out these pageants,” Olivas said. “Children are off limits.”

Chalkbeat reporter Shaina Cavazos contributed to this story.

College Access

Tennessee lawmakers advance bill to give undocumented immigrants in-state tuition

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students visit the Tennessee State Capitol with local immigrant advocacy groups in support of a measure that would ensure all Tennessee students get in-state tuition.

While President Donald Trump is considering scrapping protections for undocumented students, Tennessee lawmakers advanced a bill on Wednesday that would make it easier for them to go to college.

A proposal to give undocumented immigrant students in-state tuition passed the Senate Education Committee with a 7-2 vote and little debate.

The move was fairly unusual, given Tennessee lawmakers’ typical hardline stance on undocumented immigrants — the state outlawed “sanctuary cities” in 2009 — and the president’s focus on the issue. But the bill’s Republican sponsor, Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, has steered clear of national politics and focused instead on how the proposal would continue the state’s push to get more of its young people into college.

“We know that if more Tennesseans have a college degree, the whole state is better off,” he said. “By allowing more Tennesseans to enroll in college, we can fill crucial labor shortages and expand the overall tax base.”

Sixteen states, and four other state university systems, offered in-state tuition to undocumented students in 2015, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Six states explicitly bar those students from receiving it.

Advocates say the policy can make a big difference for families. Out-of-state tuition to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville is $30,914, compared to $12,274 in-state. And for community colleges, the difference is even greater: out-of-state tuition at Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis costs more than $15,000, while other Tennessee high school graduates can attend for free through Tennessee Promise.

Undocumented students can’t access federal Pell grants to pay for college, nor do they qualify for the state’s free community college program, which relies on federal grants.

Making sure students who have lived in Tennessee most of their lives can graduate from college means a better return on taxpayers’ investment, Gardenhire said.

“We invest in these students throughout their K-12 education,” he said. “But then they get to college, and they have to pay three times the in-state rate.”

The bill still has several hurdles to overcome before becoming law, since it hasn’t been heard yet in the House and Tennessee’s legislative session is nearing its end. But its sponsor in the House, Rep. Mark White, a Republican from Memphis, said he is optimistic about the bill’s chances there as well. Gov. Bill Haslam has said in the past that allowing all Tennessee students in-state tuition “has merit.”

On Wednesday, dozens of immigrant students attended the hearing to watch the vote. Many remembered a similar bill that died in the House two years ago, just one vote short.

Many were heartened by the vote, according to Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, policy director of Tennessee Immigrants and Refugee Rights Coalition.

“We are optimistic that subsequent committees will vote to support Tuition Opportunity and that undocumented students in the class of 2017 will be able to graduate with greater opportunity to enroll in college this fall,” she said in a statement.

#immigrantsrock

Dear Mr. President: Immigrant students in Denver tweet to Trump about why their families make America great

PHOTO: Katie Wood
Alejandro Moya, left, and Salvador Garcia look at tweets together that students were adding to a Google Doc as drafts before tweeting them out. Students from Bruce Randolph School tweeted messages to President Donald Trump on Wednesday.

Spread out over large tables, the students of Room 228 cluster together in front of their laptops, typing out messages to the president of the United States.

The sixth and seventh graders at Bruce Randolph School in northeast Denver are the sons and daughters of immigrants. For almost a week now, they have been learning in their English language development class about the contributions of immigrants, President Donald Trump’s rise to power and the vocabulary behind his favorite mode of communication: Twitter.

Those lessons culminated Wednesday when the students’ messages to the president about how their friends and families make America great were posted on the social network via a new classroom account.

“Who used the hashtag, ‘immigrantsrock?’” says teacher Mandy Rees, who came up with the idea of tweeting at Trump. “That makes my heart happy. That’s wonderful.”

Trump’s election and hard-line executive orders on immigration have stoked fears in immigrant communities in Denver and across the country about raids and mass deportations. With so many children of immigrants enrolled in public schools, the classroom has become a forum to meet those fears head on, with educators providing moral support and teaching moments.

This week’s classroom exercise at Bruce Randolph began with a challenge. Principal Cesar Cedillo and another school administrator are headed to a conference in Washington, D.C., this month and arranged meetings with members of Colorado’s congressional delegation.

Teachers were asked to come up with an assignment that would produce something the school leaders could take to the nation’s capital to share with the delegation.

“I kept thinking, ‘How does Donald Trump communicate?’” Rees said. “Well, he communicates through Twitter. This is the best way.”

Last week, the students watched the film “A Day Without a Mexican,” which takes a satirical look at what would happen if all of California’s Mexicans suddenly disappeared. They watched a short PBS “Frontline” piece about Trump’s ascendancy. And they learned the language of Twitter — character counts, how to tweet at people, how hashtags work.

The students spent part of Monday writing drafts of their messages, and refined them Tuesday. Although Rees said the main point of the assignment is to tell students, “You’re important, your voice matters, and it doesn’t feel like that right now,” it’s also a reading and writing exercise.

More than seven in 10 middle school students and nearly eight in 10 high school students at Bruce Randolph are English language learners. Some of the sixth and seventh graders in Rees’s classroom are reading in English at second- or even first-grade level. Many of the students’ parents and relatives are undocumented.

During third period Wednesday morning, students in Room 228 type their 140-character-or-less messages into a shared Google Doc.

One of the two teachers — Rees or Carrie Cisneros — checks them for accuracy and moves them to Twitter, at times tagging Trump’s Twitter handle.

“OK, you guys,” Cisneros says. “I’m ready to tweet another one.”

The tweets — which Rees plans to compile so school leaders can take hard copies to Washington — come in rapid fire. The students summon the teachers for help with calls of, “Miss, miss.” One boy asks whether it’s possible to use a burrito emoji.

The students were told to keep it positive on Twitter, Rees says, not be mean like Trump can be.

“Don’t forget to capitalize ‘America,’ friends,” Cisneros says.

Eating lunch in class after the period ends, a group of sixth-grade boys share their feelings about President Trump, immigrants’ role in society and the assignment they’ve just completed.

“It makes me mad because he is saying we are worthless and we don’t help the U.S.A.,” says student Sebastian Soto. “My dad, he builds houses. My mom, she cleans and cares for us.”

The boys say they hope their messages, whether Trump sees them or not, make a difference in how people think and act. They hope no immigrants are deported, or hurt.

How does it feel to share their experiences with the president?

Says one boy, “I feel proud.”