Maria Sotomayor spoke to a cafeteria full of teachers on Tuesday about the rights of undocumented immigrant students and the work that the Pennsylvania Immigrant and Citizen Coalition is doing to educate immigrant communities.
PICC conducts “Know Your Rights” workshops for undocumented students and families. She said that many students, and even parents, don’t know their basic rights. For example, when stopped by law enforcement, the only information a Pennsylvania resident is required to give is his or her full name.
“You as educators are often the point person for children and families. The institution where you are is a place that families put trust in,” Sotomayor said. She talks with students at schools and asks them what response they would like to see from their school districts.
Using students' feedback, she came up with this list:
We want counselors who are trained to talk to us about how we’re feeling without fearing that they’re going to tell someone we are undocumented.
We want to be sure that our schools are not sharing our personal information with ICE.
We want schools to have a clear policy that ICE cannot just walk into schools and start taking kids. ICE must come in with a warrant.
We want to train school police to learn about the rights of immigrants. They should not feel like they are also federal agents.
Sotomayor explained the importance of reading warrants to make sure that the name and address on the warrant are their own. Every warrant should also be signed by a judge, and even if the warrant is valid it should be photographed by the recipient.
Sotomayor said that in the first half of 2016, ICE carried out raids on youth all over the country.
Ten undocumented high school students in North Carolina were taken away by ICE, most while walking to their school buses. They lost their initial court cases, although several had families who were in the process of appealing. Now their children will be held in a detention center while they await the results of those appeals.
Sotomayor asked the crowd how they could help if a member of their school’s community was being deported.
A young woman in the crowd raised her hand. “I actually had a friend at risk of being deported over the weekend,” she said. “Other friends made phone calls, reaching out to our senators, and calling organizations that dealt with these issues.”
“Another way you can help is financially,” Sotomayor said. “Whoever is detained is going to need a lawyer, and they may have been the main person bringing in the income in their family. I have a friend that used bingo to help raise money for these fees.”
She also stressed that people should be careful when seeking an immigration lawyer, because sometimes criminals impersonate lawyers, seeking to scam misinformed immigrants by guaranteeing they can get their loved one out of detention for an upfront payment.
There are no guarantees when it comes to deportation appeals, Sotomayor said, and anyone using such definitive language is likely running a scam.
She distributed a list of nonprofit organizations that provide free or low-cost legal services in immigration law:
Catholic Social Services – Immigration services: 215-854-7019
Esperanza Immigration Legal Services: 215-324-0746, ext. 298
HIAS Pennsylvania: 215-832-0900
Nationalities Service Center: 215-893-8400
Robin Roberts, the parent of three public school students and a member of Parents United, asked what a person should do if they witness ICE taking a member of their community into custody.
Sotomayor told her the first thing she should do is get out a cell phone and press the record button.
“Having a record of what happened is important, because when it comes down to it, ICE can just say ‘this never happened’ if there’s no proof of it,” Sotomayor said. “And make sure you contact one of the local organizations so we can put their family in touch with a lawyer.”
Kelly Collings, a teacher at Feltonville and co-chair of the Working Educators caucus, had Sotomayor facilitate a "Know Your Rights" workshop with her 6th-grade students at Feltonville School of Arts & Sciences.
She said the workshop informed them about the rights of undocumented immigrants and “helped students understand the political nature of the immigration process.”
“When you came in and did that training with my 6th graders, they went home and told their parents,” Collings said. “That thing about not having to open the door for ICE [without a warrant], most of them didn’t know that.
“They educated their parents.”