cutting for a cause

Here’s what three student protesters had to say about immigration, education and Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
New York City high school students protest on Tuesday in Foley Square in Manhattan.

Hundreds of New York City high school students walked out of class on Tuesday to protest President Donald Trump, filling Manhattan’s Foley Square with chants of “No hate! No fear! Refugees are welcome here!” and “We love public school! Betsy DeVos is a fool!”

The new U.S. education secretary, who was confirmed as students amassed, was not the teens’ only target. Many said they had ventured into the cold rain to stand in support of immigrants and against Islamophobia.

“School is very important to most of us. And skipping something that is required just shows that we care about this protest a lot,” said Samira Mautushi, 16, a junior at NYC iSchool in Manhattan.

It was the second walkout that Beacon School senior Hebh Jamal, 17, helped organize since Election Day.

“Even at our age, we should be able to demand things,” she told Chalkbeat ahead of the rally. “Students, collectively, care.”

Here is what the young protesters had to say about the president’s recent immigration orders, federal education policy and what it’s like to be Muslim in Trump’s America.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Samira Mautushi

Samira Mautushi was concerned about Trump’s recent executive order suspending the country’s refugee program and blocking travel from seven majority-Muslim nations. (The order has been temporarily halted as it makes its way through the courts.)

“My family is Muslim. Most of the people I know are Muslim. Because of the Muslim ban, a lot of my family members and friends have been getting scared. It’s causing a lot of emotion among people I know, and it just felt right for me to come here and protest against what Trump’s been trying to do.

“Sometimes I’ll see people, on social media especially, I see people who are against people of my color and people of my religion … They need to learn about equality. Just because we look different than you and we come from different countries doesn’t mean we’re worse than you.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Galen Oettel (center)

Galen Oettel, 18, is a senior at NYC iSchool. He decided to join the walkout to show support for his classmates.

“We have a lot of friends at school who are undocumented immigrants and Trump puts them at risk. We want to stand up for their rights as citizens, and we have a lot of Muslim friends who we also want to stand up for.

“All his policies affect us in so many ways that he wouldn’t understand as a rich, white male. All his policies are so wrong to so many people. And he’s not supported by a majority of the population.

“I think it’s really important to stay angry at everything that’s going on. And it’s be really easy to not be angry because it might not affect me personally as a white male. But I realize that it affects a lot of other people.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Omer Rondel

Omer Rondel, 14, is a freshman at Brooklyn Latin School. He called Betsy DeVos an “elitist” and was generally worried about Trump’s cabinet picks.

DeVos is “super unqualified for the job: Never been to a public school. Never sent her kids to public school. Wants to funnel money into private, Christian and Catholic schools. Just a horrible, horrible choice.

“Millions and millions of kids get their education from public schools. It’s the future of America, it’s the future of the world and you’re destroying people’s lives.”

Close vote

Tennessee House committee denies in-state tuition to 13,000 immigrant students

PHOTO: Marcus Villa/Latino Memphis
Immigrant students display their career aspirations during a visit to the State Capitol in March to support a bill that would extend in-state tuition to them. The proposal was voted down by a House committee on Tuesday.

A proposal to ease the pathway to college for about 13,000 Tennessee students died by a single vote in a House education committee on Tuesday, as young people who would have benefited looked on.

For the third year, Rep. Mark White of Memphis had sponsored a bill that would grant in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, arguing that expanded education access would be a boon for all Tennesseans.

But opponents shot down the measure 7-6 after hearing discussion mostly in favor of it. Rep. Dawn White, a Murfreesboro Republican, was the only lawmaker to speak against the bill. She argued that the policy would make Tennessee a magnet for illegal immigration.

About a dozen immigrant students had crammed into a committee room at the State Capitol in Nashville to witness the vote. Many were moved to tears by the outcome. The panel’s decision means Tennessee students who are in the country illegally must pay two to three times higher than their counterparts who pay in-state tuition to attend a public college. 

The scene was reminiscent of 2015, when a similar bill made it all the way to the House floor, only to fail by one vote because a Democratic supporter was absent.

This year, the measure had passed the Senate Education Committee and had the endorsement of Gov. Bill Haslam and the state’s largest college system, which stood to enjoy millions of dollars in increased revenue if it passed.

White wants Tennessee to join 20 states that allow undocumented immigrants to have in-state tuition. He argued that his proposal would help set the life trajectories of thousands of students, as well as their future children who will be citizens of Tennessee and the U.S.

“Most of these young people come from modest means. To pay $28,000 a year is out of the question,” he said. “I believe that it’s a basic conservative argument that if a person is willing to get up every morning, go to work, go to school, and better their life — that is what we have been about as a party all of my life.”

PHOTO: Marcus Villa/Latino Memphis
The vote means Tennessee students who are in the country illegally must pay two to three times higher than their counterparts who pay in-state tuition to public college.

Karla Meza, a recent high school graduate from Knox County, shared her story in hopes of swaying lawmakers on the fence. While most of her classmates at Powell High School could earn an associate’s degree for free through the Tennessee Promise, she pays nearly $10,000 a semester, or $697 per credit hour. Six credits short of an associate’s degree, Meza aspires to attend law school at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

“We’re all here today to better our future, better our state, better our families,” she said.

Rep. Johnnie Turner, a Democrat from Memphis who is black, said Meza’s struggle reminded her of her own experience as a young woman of being barred from attending many Tennessee schools because of her race.

Expanding college access has been a top priority in the legislature in recent years, and Turner said the bill was in the spirit of Drive to 55, a 2014 state initiative to boost the percentage of Tennesseans with college degrees to 55 percent.

“The Drive to 55 didn’t say anywhere that we were going to discriminate against anybody,”she said. “Drive to 55 is for African-Americans, for Caucasians, for Hispanics, for all of the ethnic groups that make our state what it is.”

Arguing against the bill, Dawn White cited Georgia, which not only bars undocumented immigrants from receiving in-state tuition, but forbids them from enrolling in many state universities altogether. “Overcrowding is going happen,” she said. “We’ve thought long and hard about this, but you know, right is right, and wrong is wrong, and I cannot pass the burden onto taxpayers of Tennessee.”

In fact, the 20 states that already grant in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants have not seen noticeable upticks in illegal immigration. And Georgia has one of the highest undocumented populations in the nation.

Mark White acknowledged the current political climate, in which President Donald Trump campaigned to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to stem immigration. But he said his bill is about education, not immigration.

“If I didn’t believe this was the right thing to do, I would not put our committee through this, because it’s hard. With national politics, it’s hard. But we’ve got these young people who say, ‘I just want to have a chance,’” he said.

Meza said she was “kind of in shock” following Tuesday’s vote but still hopes to attend law school in Tennessee.

“It’s disappointing,” she said. “The fact is, we’ve been here, we graduated from Tennessee high schools, and we do pay money to the state.

PHOTO: Marcus Villa/Latino Memphis
Immigrant students supporting the bill pose with Gov. Bill Haslam and bill sponsors Rep. Mark White and Sen. Todd Gardenhire during a visit to the State Capitol in March.

Immigration

Did immigration agents get too close to a Denver school? City, district officials raise questions

Denver Post file.

Leaders from Denver’s city government, school district and court system have a message for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement: back off our schools and courthouses.

In a letter Thursday to the acting chief of the local ICE field office, officials including Mayor Michael Hancock and Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg asked that the agency follow its own policy in respecting such “sensitive locations” while carrying out their duties.

The letter in part was triggered by a March 14 incident that rattled one Denver school community.

That morning, federal immigration agents dressed in black arrived at a residence directly adjacent to Colorado High School Charter in west Denver, a neighborhood that is home to many immigrant families, according to the letter. The enforcement action, which was planned, came during morning drop-off in plain view of students and families, it said.

“We believe this enforcement action, particularly because it was scheduled  to occur during the morning drop-off period, may have violated both the letter and the spirit of your sensitive location policy,” the letter reads. “The hour and location of this action potentially put children, staff and parents in danger should your agents have encountered resistance, and clearly caused alarm to the principal and the community served by the school.”

The 2011 “sensitive location” policy discourages ICE agents from arresting, interviewing, searching or surveilling targets of investigations while they are in schools, places of worship, hospitals or at public demonstrations like marches and rallies. Exceptions are allowed if “exigent circumstances exist,” or other law enforcement actions have led officers to a sensitive location.

A memo laying out the policy also says ICE officers or agents should consult with supervisors if a planned enforcement operation “could reasonably be viewed as being at or near a sensitive location.”

Another aspect of the March 14 incident bothered authors of the letter to ICE. According to the letter, video taken during the incident shows ICE  agents wearing black uniforms with “POLICE” in large white letters and “ICE” in much smaller type. This, the letter said, can lead people to mistakenly think that local police are involved in immigration enforcement.

A Denver-based ICE spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Denver Public Schools has taken several steps to reassure immigrant families in the wake of President Trump’s election and his following through on campaign promises to adopt hard-line immigration policies.

The school board in February approved a resolution saying DPS will do everything “in its lawful power” in response to immigration enforcement to protect students’ confidential information and not disrupt learning. That includes continuing its policy of not collecting any information on students’ immigration status and involving DPS’s general counsel in any enforcement requests.

Alex Renteria, a DPS spokeswoman, said the principal of Colorado High School Charter contacted the City Council, not the school district. She said the district’s legal department could not recall other examples of ICE detentions near schools.

The principal of Colorado High School Charter, Clark Callaham, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The school is an alternative high school serving at-risk students. As of last fall, it had 350 students, 62 percent of whom are Hispanic, DPS data show. Many are from outside the district’s boundaries.

Boasberg said in a statement Thursday that the district is required by law “to ensure that our schools are safe spaces where a student’s race, ethnicity, religion and immigration status do not create any barriers to that child’s education.”

“We urge ICE to continue to respect our schools as sensitive locations so that our students know they are safe,” Boasberg said. “When they are confident in their safety, they will be more successful as students and their success as students is so vital to our shared success as a community.”