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.

raising the curtain

Aurora high school students started rehearsing a musical about an earlier time — and discovered ‘harsh truths’ about today

Ebony Nash, left, sings during a rehearsal of Ragtime at Hinkley High School. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Nine weeks ago, more than 50 theater and choir students at Aurora’s Hinkley High School came together to begin work on a musical set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York.

At first, the kids did what high school students often do — cluster into familiar cliques, or self-segregate by race. Then the students started immersing themselves in the material.

The musical, “Ragtime,” intertwines the stories of a white family, a Jewish immigrant family and an African-American couple to spotlight differences and commonalities in the American experience.

At the urging of their teachers and directors, the Hinkley students began to use the plot and characters to examine their own actions, prejudice and biases. About 92 percent of Hinkley’s more than 2,100 students are students of color, the vast majority of them Latino.

The cliques and segregation slipped away. The production began taking shape.

“Ragtime” gets its Hinkley High School debut on Thursday and will be performed again on Friday and Saturday.

Chalkbeat sat down with a group of students involved in the production as they were in final preparations to learn about what their experience had taught them. The following is a portion of that conversation, slightly condensed and rearranged for clarity:

Janelle Douglas, a 17-year-old senior who portrays a friend of one of the story’s main characters, said the first time she saw and read through Ragtime, “it was intense.” She often cries as she rehearses her solo, sung during a funeral.

DOUGLAS: “I thought, this is powerful. This is overwhelming. This is amazing.”

Pamela Arzate, 17, plays the role of Evelyn Nesbit, a real model and actress who is incorporated into the fictional story and accused of being shallow.

ARZATE: “It’s very eye-opening because you look at it and it’s just a simple musical, but if you take a step back and go to the real world, it’s the exact same thing that’s going on today.”

Hodaly Sotelo, 17, plays the role of Mother, a woman whose attitudes toward her identity as a wife and woman evolve throughout the story.

SOTELO: “It reminds me of when I was younger and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re over all that racism.’ But now, I look back and I think, what the heck? This stuff is still going on and we thought it was way over.”

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, is one of two student directors.

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “It talks about all of the harsh truths that no one wants to talk about.”

DOUGLAS: “I think it’s safe to say it shows the true colors of our history.”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “Even within our cast we did have to have a talk about how we were so separated because we were at the very beginning. Everyone was in their little groups and with their friends. You just want to keep to yourself.”

DOUGLAS: “It was literally ‘Ragtime.’”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “We had a big talk with everybody. Things have gotten so much better. By the end of Act Two, we were all mixed up.”

Brenda Castellanos, 17, plays the role of Emma Goldman, drawn from a real-life political activist and anarchist.

CASTELLANOS: “Now that we’re closer, now that we’re all comfortable, we put in more effort.”

After nearly every rehearsal, teachers and directors give students a talk, urging them to immerse themselves in the feelings of their characters, relating to them if necessary through their parents, grandparents or ancestors who were immigrants, or through current events.

“What if you saw someone beaten, and bloodied and killed in front of you?” one director asked.

They also remind students of why the play should be impactful. “You have to figure out how for two-and-a-half hours you can give hope to that audience,” Marie Hayden, Hinkley’s choir director told students last week.

CASTELLANOS: “I think it it helps us. Every day, we get more into it and more into it until we actually believe it. You actually feel it — like how Janelle feels when she’s singing and she starts crying and makes everybody cry. We all feel connected.”

Students say they have different scenes that impact them the most, but they don’t hesitate to find how the scenes relate to their life despite the story being set in the first decade of the 1900s. Hayden’s class and the practice for the musical are safe places where they can discuss those parallels, they said.

Shavaun Mar, 16, is a junior who plays the main character of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime piano player who is the target of racial attacks and struggles with revenge and forgiveness.

MAR: “I feel like that is crucial that we give people those opportunities to talk because a lot of people have very valid things to say but they just don’t have a way to get it out.”

CASTELLANOS: “The shootings.”

ARZATE: “The racism. They help us discuss it because there’s so many things that are going on. Pretty much everyday there’s a tragedy going on. And so, in a way, we can use that sentiment, that emotion that we feel with the real world and convey it when we’re doing this show. We use those feelings and we try to think about it in that way. To display that emotion. To display it to everyone else. And not directly represent what’s going on today but just to give them that ‘aha’ moment, like ‘wow.’”

Ebony Nash, 17, plays the character of Sarah, an innocent girl who wants to help her boyfriend settle his problems.

NASH: “It just makes us want justice in real life because these things are still going on even though it’s not out there. It just makes us want justice for our community. This musical showed me that I need to become better within myself because I’m not perfect.”

SOTELO: “It opened my eyes a lot more for sure. This kind of just makes me realize the problems I have. It makes me realize yea, I’m having immigration issues with my father right now, but that also my friends, you know, they’re going through the same thing too. This DACA stuff or this coming out stuff. I became more accepting of what other people might be going through and how I can help.”

MAR: “The past few years, I have been in a bit of a shell. So putting myself in this situation and pushing myself to be this other person has really shown me what I’m capable of and it’s helping me break out of that shell and realize who I am as a person.”

NASH: “Basically, this is our getaway from real life because we get to come on stage and be somebody else. It also makes us want to put the story out right so people can understand. So people can feel what we want them to feel.”

CASTELLANOS: “That there’s hope after all this corruption that’s going on.”

DOUGLAS: “That even in your bad times you can still laugh, cry, dance.”

NASH: “What I want people to get from this is change. To learn how to change and learn how to forgive and learn how to come together as a community and just, like their worth.”

SOTELO: “And to be strong. To stand up for what’s right.”

ARZATE: “And it might sound weird, but I feel like they should feel a certain level of uncomfort because that means that they’re going to look at themselves while seeing the musical. Maybe they’ll go ‘I’m uncomfortable because I do that’ or ‘I have that prejudice’ or ‘I feel that certain way,’ so if they come out and they feel uncomfortable and then at the end they’re like, ‘Wow. There’s that hope for change.’ Hopefully that like…”

DOUGLAS: “… It inspires them to do better.”

ARZATE: “Like, you can do it.”

SOTELO: “It’s kind of like a water droplet. One small move can domino-effect to something bigger.”

 



book excerpt

How one word bound together a classroom of Denver high school students learning a new language — and a new country

Eddie Williams's classroom at Denver's South High School (photo provided by Helen Thorpe).

Eddie Williams felt a sense of kinship with students who struggled to determine their place in American society. The English Language Acquisition teacher had been born in a tiny border town in southern California. His mother had grown up nearby, in a Spanish-speaking household. Her parents had immigrated from Mexico, and when she was a child, Mr. Williams’s mother had learned English in ELA classes. For her, the experience had been searing. As an adult, she had not taught her children Spanish, for fear they would encounter the sort of virulent prejudice she had experienced in school. When her children were small, she did not even share with them the complete story of her own background, because of the degree of prejudice toward those of Mexican descent. She had married an American, and when her children were small, they believed they were Anglo.

    This is an excerpt from the new book, “The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom,” by Denver journalist and author Helen Thorpe.

One day, while we were standing on the front steps of South, chatting about his background, Eddie Williams recalled that when his mother had finally revealed her Mexican identity, his sister had cried. In her mind, to be Mexican was to be dirty or unlovable. It was not something she wanted to be. Although he did not say so, I thought perhaps he, too, might have struggled to embrace fully the part of himself that had been treated as inferior by white society. I could see why teaching the beginner level ELA class to newcomer students at South High School might make him feel more whole.

With the advent of spring, as more and more interactions were taking place, I found myself able appreciate in an entirely new fashion how all of the different languages represented in the room converged in ways I had not previously recognized. I glimpsed this convergence one afternoon in the middle of April, when I was sitting with Shani, Jakleen, and Mariam, who had teamed up to work together. They were talking about a book that Mr. Williams had started reading out loud with the class. The book was called Cesar Chavez: Fighting for Farmworkers, and it was a nonfiction graphic novel, told in cartoon strips.

For Mr. Williams, the story of Cesar Chavez held tremendous power. He got a little emotional, trying to explain the significance of this guy his students had never heard of—trying to put into words why Cesar Chavez mattered. At one point, as I was listening to Shani, Jakleen, and Mariam discuss a poster they were making about the book, I found myself wondering how the three girls were managing to communicate. Shani spoke Tajik, Russian, and a little Farsi, while Jakleen and Mariam were Arabic speakers—in other words, they did not share a common language. Yet they seemed to understand one another, and they were not using Google Translate, nor were they speaking in English. How were they interacting? I could hear all three of them saying the word kitab. What was that? “Book!” Shani told me. “My language, their language, same.”

In their home languages, the word for “book” was virtually identical. In Arabic, it was kitab; in Tajik, kitob. In Turkish, it was kitap, Jakleen pointed out, and in Farsi, Shani hastened to add, the word was kitab, just like Arabic. Initially, I thought this kind of convergence existed only in the Middle East, but as I spent more time with students from Africa, I came to realize my mistake. Dilli told me that that in Kunama, the word for “book” was kitaba, and Methusella said in Swahili it was kitabu. That was the moment when I grasped my own arrogance as an English speaker. I mean, the arrogance harbored by someone who knew only European languages, which rendered the well-laced interconnectedness of the rest of the world invisible. I was starting to see it, though—the centuries-old ties that bound Africa and the Middle East, born of hundreds of years of trade and travel and conquest and marriage. Once the students grasped that I would exclaim with delight if they found a word that had moved through many of their countries, they started coming to me to share loanwords and cognates. More than one-third of Swahili comes from Arabic, meaning the links between those two languages are as powerful as those between English and Spanish, but it was also possible to chart the reach of Arabic across the African continent, into Kunama and Tigrinya as well.

Helen Thorpe

As the kids began to discover these commonalities, I began to feel as though I was watching something like the living embodiment of a linguistic tree. The classroom and the relationships forming in it were almost a perfect map of language proximity around the globe. Generally, students chose to communicate most with students whose home languages shared large numbers of cognates with their own, which meant their first friendships often developed along language groupings. As this took place around me, I could see my own position on the world’s tree of languages more clearly. English speakers can easily grasp the vast coterminology of all the Indo-European languages—our own limb of the global language tree—but we are generally deaf and dumb to the equally large influence of Arabic, or Chinese, or Hindi across parts of the globe where English does not dominate. And we cannot hear or see the equally significant coterminology that has resulted among various other language families, such as between the Arabic and the African languages. It was to our detriment, not understanding how tightly interwoven other parts of the world are. When we make enemies in the Middle East, for example, we alienate whole swaths of Africa, too—often without knowing.

Qalb was the word that the students wanted to teach me about most of all. One day over lunch, Shani got very puppylike about this concept, bouncing around in her chair as we were sitting with Rahim, Jakleen, and Mariam. “Qalb! My language, qalb! Arabic, qalb! Farsi, qalb!” Shani announced. Okay, I thought, I get it; they’ve found another cognate. But what was qalb? “Qalb means ‘heart,’” Rahim explained. “This word, it is the same in all our languages.” I tried to get a better sense of this concept, which the students and I discussed over a series of days, first with Rahim and later with Ghasem. Could you say that their English Language Acquisition teacher, Mr. Williams, had a qalb that pumped blood through his body? Yes, Ghasem confirmed. Could you ask, “How much qalb did it take for Mr. Williams to do this, year after year, with such infinite patience, for room after room of newcomers?” Yes, the students agreed. When two people fell in love—was that qalb again? Yes.

I left South High School that day thinking that qalb and heart were one and the same. I used one word to refer to a muscle in my body and the concept of falling in love and the idea of what it takes to raise a family or to teach an entire classroom full of teenagers from all around the world, and the students from the Middle East would use one single word for all of that, too. Qalb and heart seemed identical. Then I looked up qalb on Google Translate one weekend, while the kids were missing me and I was missing the kids. When I asked Google to translate “heart” into Arabic, it gave qalb, as expected. But when I asked Google to translate qalb into English, I got transformation, conscience, core, marrow, pith, pulp, gist, essence, quintessence, topple, alter, flip, tip, overturn, reversal, overthrow, capsize, whimsical, capricious, convert, counterfeit. In addition, the word meant: substance, being, pluck.

I am in love with this word, I thought. What is all this movement about? My own concept of heart did not include flip, capsize, or reverse. Our two cultures did not seem to have the same idea of what was happening at the core of our beings. There was something reified and stolid about my sense of heart, whereas the idea of heart that these kids possessed appeared to have a lighter, more nimble quality. Whatever it was, qalb seemed more fluid and less constrained than anything I had imagined happening inside of me.