How Colleges Protect Undocumented Students

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America’s immigration laws are in a constant state of change. Immigrant, refugee, and undocumented students face an array of practical, bureaucratic and legal challenges, many imposed by state and federal lawmakers with outspoken hostility toward immigrant communities. Despite these changes and challenges, the role of America’s colleges and universities remains constant: to educate any and all who seek and qualify for admission. The right to access an education in the United States is constitutionally assured to all, regardless of residency status or citizenship.

This means that as the classmates, educators, and colleges of America’s undocumented students, we have a shared obligation to protect our peers from discrimination, intimidation, or the violation of civil liberties.

What can we do to help undocumented students working for college credits, graduate degrees, and career opportunities here in the United States? We’ll highlight a few steps you can take to support your undocumented classmates and colleagues, especially in this time of heightened uncertainty for America’s immigrant communities.

Education and Immigration Law

Before we get into the tips, it’s important to acknowledge one important overarching principle. Educators and colleges do not have a responsibility to enforce America’s ever-shifting immigration laws. To the contrary, Constitutional law and legal precedent indicate that the first responsibility of educators and institutions is to serve students of every background, irrespective of immigration enforcement priorities.

While enforcement initiatives and executive policy orders may shift the culture and behavior around the treatment of immigrant and undocumented Americans — especially given the uncertainty surrounding the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative — the legal precedents regarding the rights of undocumented students remain unchanged.

This means that educators, colleges, and universities are not merely ethically compelled to protect undocumented students, but that judicial review dictates we are also legally obligated to do so.

Moreover, points out the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA), “School personnel — especially principals and those involved with student registration and enrollment — should be aware that they have no legal obligation to enforce U.S. immigration laws.”

With that in mind, here’s how we as classmates, colleagues, educators, and administrators, fulfill our obligation to protect the undocumented students in our educational community:

Know the Law

First and foremost, understand the rights available to undocumented students and the challenges to these rights. In order to be an advocate, you must first have a basic understanding of certain key education and immigration laws:

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)
FERPA of 1974 gives parents and families the right to access educational information regarding their children, the right to access information regarding public entities (including publicly funded educational institutions), and the right to privacy regarding certain personal details, particularly as concerns the sharing of this information with entities outside of a school or district. Most notably, FERPA generally prohibits public schools and districts from disclosing certain student information, including immigration status, without prior consent.
Plyler vs. Doe
A case filed in 1975 that concerned a set of laws in Texas which required students to prove their citizenship status in order to attend public schools. Public schools in one Texas municipality also imposed tuition requirements on students without this documentation. An eventual 1982 Supreme Court decision found that both the Texas law and the municipal law imposing tuition fees were unconstitutional and violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The decision would set a legal precedent, making access to K-12 public school a constitutional right for all, regardless of immigration status.
THE DREAM Act
A bill that was originally introduced to Congress in 2001 with the intention of providing pathways to legal status and eventual citizenship for immigrants who arrived in the United States as minors. Though the DREAM Act was never passed into law, it did provide the term Dreamer to describe young undocumented Americans — many of whom arrived here as children through no decision of their own. In offering a special classification to this group of undocumented Americans, the proposed DREAM act also created a framework for providing structured protection to deserving immigrants — those attending school, maintaining gainful employment, and otherwise remaining free from criminal convictions.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)
The DACA policy opened major pathways to normalization, visibility and educational access for younger immigrants and undocumented residents. DACA was an extension of the DREAM ACT and provided a temporary fix for the absence of real legislation, giving thousands of young immigrants the chance to obtain legal status, education, work, and freedom from legal persecution. However, Donald Trump’s 2016 election produced major shifts in federal immigration policy. This has included widespread deportations, criminal prosecutions, enforcement raids, and efforts to roll back the protections afforded under DACA. The result is a state of legal flux and uncertainty for undocumented students.

Uncertainty Surrounding DACA

Among the nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants living the U.S, roughly 800,000 are classified as Dreamers and have been protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) since its implementation in 2012. DACA status translates into a wider array of educational options — including more public colleges and universities — and even some opportunities for state-based aid or scholarship assistance.

Though the Trump Administration has sought to prevent new applications while advancing efforts to unravel DACA protections for those who already have DREAMER status, judicial challenges have so far protected the law from total elimination. Still, DACA protections remain in a threatened and uncertain state. That means that, in order to be an advocate, you must remain current on the changes surrounding DACA. These may shift with election outcomes, legislative processes, and judicial decisions.

Check out DACA and other Key Laws Impacting Undocumented Students for a more detailed look at the ever-shifting legal landscape.

You can also visit the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) for ongoing updates on legislative changes, executive actions, and both judicial and advocacy-based efforts impacting Dreamers.

Or look at this helpful fact sheet from the American Federation of Teachers [PDF] that provides a quick look at the changes to undocumented student rights as DACA endures legal challenges.

Visit the DREAM Education Justice Program at United We Dream for education-specific support relating to student Dreamer status and opportunities for educational advancement.

Protect “Sensitive Locations”

Though immigration enforcement tactics have become more aggressive in recent years, a policy memorandum released by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency in 2011 still dictates that ICE agents are restricted from engaging in enforcement actions in certain “sensitive locations.” In addition to hospitals, places of worship, and public demonstrations, all schools, colleges and universities are considered sensitive locations. As a classmate, educator or campus faculty member, you have a right to defend undocumented students against inappropriate enforcement actions. If you enjoy the safety of citizenship, use that safety to speak out against enforcement actions on your campus.

You can also check out Undocumented Students: Know Your Rights to make sure that your student body understands these rights and takes the proper steps to protect them.

Issue Statement of Support

For institutions and educators alike, make sure that undocumented and refugee students know that the campus and its personnel are there to help. Some students may be afraid to seek support from those in a position of authority. Issue a multilingual statement at the beginning of each semester, and maintain online resources at all times, indicating that counselors, educators, financial aid advisors and others are a part of the support system for undocumented students. This statement may even be strengthened by the passage of a schoolwide resolution indicating an official policy rejecting certain federal enforcement actions. At the very least, any such statement should indicate a commitment to the safety, protection, and learning rights of undocumented students in your community.

Make Informational Resources Readily Available

In addition to understanding the rights of undocumented students, it’s important to make sure that you help convey these rights. Your college or university should provide a permanent online list of resources and information in an array of languages, and in a readily accessible location. In addition to outlining undocumented student rights, indicating inclusive university policy, and linking to support groups and networks, this resource should be promoted through regular targeted and public outreach. Keep your student body informed!

Check out Support, Advocacy and Resources for Undocumented Students for a more expansive list of legal groups, support networks, and student advocates.

Provide Multilingual Counselors and Other Staff

One of the biggest challenges faced by undocumented students is adjustment to the challenges of a new language. This barrier can stand in the way of information, access and awareness, whether it relates to legal rights, opportunities for financial support, or even a basic sense of belonging. Colleges that provide multilingual counselors, financial aid officers, admissions personnel, and educators can help to create more than just a sense of inclusion. Reducing barriers to communication and information can help undocumented students take all the appropriate steps to be supported, protected, and successful while pursuing a degree.

One of the best ways to support undocumented students and other immigrant community members is teach English Language Learning (ELL) courses. Check out these degrees if you’re interested in a career as an English instructor for students who are adjusting to a new culture, life, and language:

Create a Culturally Inclusive Educational Experience

In addition to language barriers, undocumented and refugee students often face a set of cultural challenges on the way to a college or graduate degree. As classmates and educators, we have a responsibility to promote cultural exchange. Cultural diversity is a virtue. For us to collectively realize the value of this diversity, it’s important to promote open and conscientious dialogue between different groups, to disseminate information promoting intercultural sensitivity, and most importantly, to confront discrimination vocally and without tolerance. Create an atmosphere on campus that is welcoming to all, and which makes no place for hate or exclusion.

Undocumented students face a wide range of legal challenges, which may include a process of seeking citizenship, extricating a loved one from detention, navigating the changing DACA landscape, fighting the prospects of deportation, or simply attempting to work and live in the United States without enforcement confrontation.

College campuses should provide ready access to legal support and resources for undocumented and refugee students. This can include the establishment of partnerships with immigration advocacy groups and law firms which work pro bono to address the challenges facing undocumented students and other immigrant Americans. Some schools even retain contact with “local immigration raid rapid response” teams, which can consist of attorneys, media personnel and community leaders. These teams may be deployed at a moment’s notice to help provide support and defense for students facing enforcement discrimination or the violation of personal liberties.

Check out Support, Advocacy and Resources for Undocumented Students for a more expansive list of legal groups, support networks, and student advocates.

Stay Vigilant

One of the most important things you can do as a classmate, educator, or faculty member is remain vigilant at all times. If you see signs of enforcement actions on your campus that you believe may be inappropriate or in violation of individual liberties, contact the proper legal advocacy groups or appeal to your campus leadership. If your classmate or student is showing signs of distress that you believe may be related to status of citizenship, reach out. Let the student know that you are an advocate, that you are there to help, and that you will do your best to help create access to the proper support and resources. In short, be a helpful member of your community by ensuring that all those within are treated fairly, are given personal support, and are protected by their classmates and colleagues.

Interested in helping undocumented and refugee students by working as a legal advocate, an immigration attorney, or a lawmaker? Consider a degree in legal studies or public administration:

Interested in using public outreach or advocacy to support undocumented and immigrant students? Consider a degree in social work:

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