Still, Our Schools Remain Sanctuaries
Despite Harsh Winds, Standing Our Ground
By Ernest A. Logan
Since Nov. 8, I have been waking up and pulling the covers over my head to hide from the latest surprise. The White House declares our courts a threat to national security, advocates a new nuclear arms race, and hands over the reins of the EPA to a climate denialist. They appoint an education secretary who talks about diverting funds from public to private schools and allowing guns in the classroom to defend against grizzly bears. Then they nearly appoint a labor secretary who's an avowed enemy of unions, a guy whose fast-food chain runs ads featuring half-naked blondes chowing down on burgers. Now, once again, I'm sweating over how the latest immigration ban will affect our schools, which have been sanctuaries for all children since 1805.
How could our schools not remain sanctuaries, with our students speaking 176 languages, 20 percent classified as ELL, and 40 percent living in homes where a language other than English is spoken? Blessedly, we don't know who among them is documented or undocumented because it's against the law to ask. We are aware that our system is full of the children of political refugees and economic immigrants. Our members tend not to view this as a political issue, but as a humanity issue.
Some principals and APs from very large schools are so accustomed to providing havens to hundreds of kids who come from hardship, that they view the current situation as business-as-usual. Others, from medium and small sized schools, are much more on guard than before. And a few talk about having trouble sleeping. The ones who fall into that category are usually the ones who became school leaders specifically to help immigrants adjust to a new culture and now wonder if their reason for being is threatened.
Until recently, most immigrant students didn't think they could be deported. They may have arrived as babies, but continue to have unresolved status. Although they still feel safe inside our schools, some now hesitate to come for fear of being detained on the way. Depending on the latest rumor about ICE stakeouts, a lot of them take roundabout routes to school. Most resist applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which is supposed to protect them against deportation while they go to college. Will the feds take information to use against their families? Without DACA, they can't get documents such as Social Security cards. One principal said, "A lot of students' fear is exaggerated. We're trying to focus more on civics, so they understand this is not a dictatorship like the countries they came from."
Most of their parents trust our schools, but some are now keeping a lower profile. It depends on how much support they're feeling from the surrounding communities. It helps if they have a relationship with New York Immigration Coalition or Catholic Charities and live in districts with compassionate elected officials. Congresswoman Nydia Vasquez's recent "Know Your Rights" forum was packed. Senator Jose Peralta has brought immigration lawyers into schools, filling auditoriums with standing-room-only crowds. Despite support, many parents are now less willing to take public transportation to their jobs in places such as Long Island and New Jersey. They are now afraid to enter libraries, once the greatest resource for immigrants.
APs, teachers and counselors are providing exceptional social-emotional support. Some march in demonstrations; some went to the airports with Nydia Vasquez, Jerry Nadler and Francisco Moya when immigrants were detained. One Brooklyn elementary school principal expressed concern that some of his faculty are worrying too much and communicating their fear to the children. On the other hand, a Queens high school principal, who thinks fear is very much in order, recently asked one of his English teachers not to go ahead with asking his students to write "a letter to the president." He wondered if it could put the kids at risk.
Principals advise other educators to reassure students that the school system will provide as much support as possible. Commissioner Elia and Chancellor Fariña's offices have distributed valuable information. Commissioner Elia and Attorney General Schneiderman recently circulated a much-appreciated letter about how to handle ICE requests. However, it's important to remember that we're now in unchartered territory and no assurance can be categorical. Most school leaders know this, but still want to be well informed about resources for immigrants and pass that information along to families.
Principals and APs seem to believe that a fullblown crisis is unlikely. The federal government will never be able to deport 15 million immigrants. However, the climate has changed in away that makes them more vigilant. They know that this new immigration reality is their problem, whether they have one or 1,000 students who are affected. Every one of us have family stories that put us in the shoes of ancestors who gave their blood so we could be Americans. As educators, we are looking after human beings, the values that our nation has always stood for, and our own sense of humanity.