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Supporting Immigrant Students

By Natalie Brown

Abigail’s least favorite thing about school was leaving it. That is how she answered a question on my “Get To Know You” questionnaire at the beginning of the school year. The answer set off an alarm bell. I scanned for signs of possible abuse, using the training we have at the beginning of every year. It turned out that Abigail lived at home with a happy, supportive family. I couldn’t be more relieved.

The relief was short-lived, however, as I learned the reason for her not wanting to leave school: the walk home terrified her. The cause of her stress was the fear of being picked up by ICE agents and separated from her family. I can’t imagine what it must feel like as a seven-year-old to have the cloud of being separated from your family loom over you on a daily basis. However, it’s a cloud that many of our students live with every day and a situation I have deep empathy for as a granddaughter of an undocumented immigrant who was granted immunity in 1986.

Texas has one of the highest numbers of deportations in the country, aided by the passage of Texas Senate Bill 4, with Dallas near the top of the list. Seventy percent of students in Dallas ISD are Hispanic/Latino, and while it’s difficult to know the exact number, a large number of these students live in mixed-status households. The American Immigration Council found that nearly one million U.S citizens in Texas live with at least with one family member who is undocumented. The stress of being deported is not limited to adults. It shows up in our classrooms all over the state, carried in an invisible backpack our students bring with them, packed with fear, anxiety, and uncertainty. These affect a student’s attention, ability to focus, engagement in activities, and overall performance.

As educators, we are required by law under Plyler V. Doe to provide the same educational experience to all students regardless of their immigration status. Our ability to ensure a safe, discrimination-free environment that fosters acceptance is not only our calling, but our duty. And we can do much more.

Create a welcoming environment

There are minor changes campuses can make to create a more welcoming environment for our immigrant families and students. These include:

  • A list of acceptable forms of ID, other than a driver’s license, posted in the main office that parents may use to enroll their students in school. This helps to reduce anxiety about enrollment and quickly transitions the student into a classroom.
  • Readily-available and easily-accessible preparedness packets on campus that help families be ready for emergency situations such as deportation. With less than 30 percent of detained immigrants in the state of Texas having legal representation, these packets would help families designate caregivers and guardians for their children in the event of a parent deportation. Immigration raids are prohibited on school grounds and our campuses are the one place where families can safely access this much-needed information.

Training on implicit bias

Every year, teachers are required to watch compliance videos to stay up-to-date on both federal laws and educational practices that deal with the rights and privacy of our students. A key presentation that needs to be added to the list is training teachers and other campus staff on implicit bias and cultural competence. With a large portion of our student population experiencing unique challenges that drastically affect their lives, recognizing our own implicit bias towards immigrants is critical to creating educational equity.

Handling requests for information

As educators, we should know what our rights and responsibilities are when it comes to compliance and handling requests from federal agents for the personal information of suspected immigrant students. All requests by ICE or other immigration law enforcement agencies should be referred to the Superintendent’s office to ensure the following rights of the student are being upheld and considered:

  • The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)
  • The student’s constitutional privacy
  • Standards for a judicial warrant
  • Other limitation regarding disclosure

Establishing clear protocol for campus staff to follow creates consistency within a school district and stability for students.

These simple and cost-effective solutions are easy to implement and with approximately 330,000 undocumented youth living in Texas, are long overdue. If we are to accommodate, modify, and differentiate for all of the students in our classrooms, addressing the needs of immigrant students should be included. Only then are we able to live up to our responsibility and duty of providing an equal educational experience for all.

Natalie Brown teaches 2nd grade mathematics and science at Frank Guzick Elementary in Dallas. She is a 2018–19 Teach Plus DFW Policy Fellow.