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Opinion: Educators must help undocumented students feel safe, supported

In this guest column, three researchers talk about the thousands of children and young adults awaiting a decision on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program, which grants protected legal status to young people brought here illegally as children by their parents.

DACA was in the news today after Senate negotiators said they expected a compromise on the nearly 800,000 immigrants in the DACA program. As the tense political talks continue in Washington, a federal judge in California issued a nationwide injunction Tuesday reinstating the Obama-era program that President Donald Trump planned to end.

"DACA was and remains a lawful exercise of authority," said U.S. District Judge William Alsup, contending that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was wrong when he said President Obama overstepped his authority with DACA.

The position of the authors of this column: Society and specifically educators must consider their role in supporting DACA recipients and undocumented immigrant youth.

Darris R. Means is an assistant professor in the University of Georgia College of Education; Audrey J. Jaeger is professor of higher education and Alumni Distinguished Graduate Professor in the North Carolina State University College of Education; Cazandra Rebollar is a presidential fellow for the Pro Humanitate Institute at Wake Forest University.

By Darris R. Means, Audrey J. Jaeger and Cazandra Rebollar

Meet Gabriela.

Gabriela’s family immigrated to the United States when Gabriela was 3. Her parents perceived this country to have unlimited possibilities for Gabriela and her siblings, something that they did not see possible in their native country of Mexico. Gabriela grew up with the knowledge that she was undocumented, but she did not understand how this would affect her future. In school, Gabriela excelled academically, enjoyed volunteering, and looked forward to applying to college.

In the 10th grade, she gained a greater awareness of what being undocumented meant: “I realized that because of my status, the chances of going to college were much lower since I would not have access to financial aid and some schools would not accept me."

After battling a state of hopelessness and the harsh reality that her hard work and dedication would likely lead to a future that did not meet her potential, Gabriela found support through an online community of undocumented students and allies. When she came out as undocumented to her high school counselor, she found support in this educator, who helped Gabriela find scholarships for undocumented students, as well as colleges that would accept her regardless of her citizenship status.

In 2012, Gabriela became more hopeful for her future with the news of President Obama’s executive order, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Through DACA, Gabriela was granted a two-year legal status, a work permit, and a social security number. She was able to obtain a driver’s license and a job during the summer.

With a growing community of support and the encouragement of her parents, Gabriela was able to attend a four-year college on a merit-based scholarship. However, her future, along with the future of nearly 800,000 DACA recipients, remains in limbo as Congress has yet to act on a comprehensive resolution for the immigration status of these young people.

Gabriela's story is a collective narrative of students we interviewed as part of a research study conducted in 2014 and 2015. We wanted to investigate how young adults who came to the United States as children found a pathway to college, what experiences they had while in college, and how they navigated a society filled with anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. Through our research, we were reminded of the implications that DACA has on human rights, educational and career opportunities, and financial security. (We should note that here in Georgia, three state-funded colleges and universities, University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Georgia College and State University, are not allowed to admit DACA recipients or undocumented students if they have not admitted all academically qualified applicants in the previous two years.)

Our research found that DACA recipients see the program through a variety of lenses: as a crutch for temporary safety from deportation, as an economic or educational security blanket, and for others, as a sense of normalcy that they were unable to achieve before DACA.

For those of us who do not live in fear of deportation, who do not notice the benefits of DACA being stripped away, our research has shown us something else: There is a critical need to examine our own role as educators and listen and learn about the experiences of undocumented individuals.

Through our research, we propose three steps that should be taken by educators to better support DACA recipients and undocumented students.

First, undocumented students ought to feel safe and secure in schools. Educators should understand how to use policy and law to protect the rights of undocumented students. For example, know that educators are not part of the immigration enforcement pipeline and are at no obligation to report a student’s immigration status, nor will educators be held liable for helping undocumented students achieve their educational goals.

Second, informed educators are needed to continue working alongside families to support undocumented students on their educational pathways. Information sharing and wrap-around support is essential to keep undocumented students motivated. With no federal financial aid and some higher education institutions barring undocumented students from enrollment, the pathway to college is often dimly lit. As educators, we should demonstrate our capacity to work with all students – especially the undocumented students we teach, mentor, and advise – whether we know who these individuals are or not. Additionally, we must remember DACA recipients and undocumented students are a part of a family, and the inaction of Congress will have implications for families and the parents of DACA recipients and undocumented students, whose immigration status has yet to be addressed.

Third, educators should be prepared and willing to engage in meaningful discussion about immigration policy that challenges stereotypical narratives. This is not the time to withdraw from critical dialogue on immigration. We must not be afraid to engage with our elected leaders -- who may see undocumented individuals like Gabriela as a problem in the United States, rather than acknowledging the full humanity of individuals who are our students, neighbors, and friends.

A more permanent solution to our immigration system is required, both for the individuals who have lost, and are at risk of losing, their DACA protections, and for those individuals who never qualified for DACA because of age restrictions or other arbitrary requirements. Educators and other allies need to be on the front lines with the undocumented individuals who have been leading this effort.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.