If an undocumented child in your community is grabbed off the street by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, what would you do? What should you do?
If immigration officials show up at a school, demanding to search for undocumented students, what do you say? What are you allowed to say?
Educators seeking to answer these questions filed into the cafeteria of Independence Charter School on Tuesday night for a forum sponsored by the Caucus of Working Educators. As they signed in, a table displayed an array of resources for teachers and community members.
A pink paper from the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition titled, “What does the 2016 election mean for immigrant communities?” sat in stacks organized by language: English, Haitian Creole, Arabic, Spanish, and Vietnamese, the languages corresponding with large immigrant populations living in Philadelphia.
The paper warns that there is no way of knowing what changes to immigration policy will come after Donald Trump becomes president on Jan. 20. Although rewriting laws requires congressional action and can take a long time, “administrative changes … or other executive action can be enacted quickly.”
Coalition representative Maria Sotomayor gave a presentation for educators about the rights of undocumented immigrants, offering suggestions for how teachers can help families and communities dealing with the deportation of a loved one.
“I heard a lot of kids who were very angry about [the election],” said Sotomayor, herself undocumented. “We’re trying to figure out ways to release that anger that’s a little healthier than just punching a wall.”
She recalled being devastated by the results because she didn’t know how to tell her little sister that the man who waged a campaign largely based on scapegoating people like her family was going to be the next president. But her sister’s response was simple: “Oh well.”
“Deep inside she knew what was going on,” Sotomayor said. Her sister felt comforted because Sotomayor “was teaching children that there are people who are fighting every single day. And those people are also in their classrooms.”
Schools must know what to do
“Schools play a critical role in the criminalization and detention of students and families,” because of the information they have about students, Sotomayor said. “Our families were scared. People stopped going to work or sending their kids to schools because they thought immigration would come and get them. To ICE, schools are known as ‘sensitive locations’ because they say that they will not interrupt what’s happening in a public place, but we also know that ICE doesn’t care about that — sometimes they lie about that.”
Six months ago, the coalition created a statewide campaign called ICE Out of Schools, which seeks to educate families and teachers about what the immigration enforcement agency is and is not legally allowed to do and how staff in school buildings should respond to deportation attempts targeting students. She thanked the Working Educators caucus, which organized the event, for endorsing the campaign.
Sotomayor’s fears didn’t originate with Trump's electoral victory. She pointed out that in the first half of 2016, ICE carried out raids on youth all over the country.
Sotomayor said that school districts and universities need policies that explicitly describe how teachers may or not deal with undocumented students and requests for cooperation from ICE.
“In San Francisco,” Sotomayor said, “there were teachers who were reporting their own students to immigration once they found out about their status — something teachers aren’t supposed to do — so [the school district] added a ban against that.”
The coalition is working on a toolkit for talking with school boards and community members about passing resolutions that lay out guidelines. It will be online soon, organizers say.
The organization is also putting together “Know Your Rights” workshops in immigrant communities. For example, when a Pennsylvania resident is stopped by law enforcement, the only information that person is required to give is their full name.
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. She also counseled parents who are given a legitimate search warrant, but who are concerned ICE might seize their children as well, to simply step outside and immediately close the door behind them. Once ICE has the person named on the warrant, they can no longer enter the home.
Need for districtwide guidelines
The rules about ICE searches and seizures of workplaces make a district-wide resolution vital to the safety of undocumented students, Sotomayor said.
“If immigration comes to your workplace, they also need a search warrant and the boss must give permission. In South Philadelphia, we had a case where immigration tried to come in without a warrant [to detain an employee], but the owner of the restaurant knew his rights so he locked the door on them.”
After Sotomayor’s presentation, an undocumented Mexican mother from South Philadelphia spoke about her family’s experience since the election. She spoke in Spanish with a translator beside her.
“I don’t know what to say to her or what answers to give,” the mother said, referring to her daughter. “I felt the support of [her] teachers, but also the rejection of other teachers —indifference and discrimination. But I feel that your care as teachers — as angels — who surround my daughter can outweigh the indifference and discrimination from others.”
Her daughter is in 4th grade, she said, "She just learned very recently that the counselor speaks Spanish, and that’s something that the principal never shared with her,” she said.
Max Rosen-Long, a member of the Working Educators’ Immigrant Justice Committee that organized the event, asked: “What would a school look like that was supporting you?”
“It would have someone there that speaks your language and signs around the school written in your language,” she said. “[My daughter’s] teachers knew her mom doesn’t speak English, but never offered her other options.”
Rakayat Alam, the senior class president at Furness High School who immigrated from Bangladesh eight years ago, stood up with three of her classmates to speak about their experience as immigrant students. She wore a yellow hijab, proudly displaying her Muslim faith.
“It’s really incredible and different that a whole school chose me,” Alam said. “I never thought I would be president. Usually, it would be an American kid.”
Still, “As time passes by, I’m losing my freedom because my mom is scared,” Alam said. “When you’re walking down the stairs, ‘hold the railing!’ she says, because you never know when someone might push you from behind.”
When asked whether there had been any incidents at her school, she said “No, not our school. Furness is family.” All four students agreed: Furness was a diverse place with students from 30 different countries. They felt safe.
During the event, City Councilwoman Helen Gym stressed that teachers need to be proactive in their school communities.
“Let [families] know they should feel free to call the school and give them your contact information,” she said. “There needs to be a level of outreach that goes beyond just the school and the family and the authorities.”
Gym invited the audience to attend an immigration forum with Superintendent William Hite at 6 p.m. on Jan. 24 at Community College of Philadelphia. The WE caucus also invited the audience to attend the District’s Office of Multilingual Families community forum at 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 17 at 440 N. Broad St.
“I want to thank the caucus for pushing this idea of the sanctuary school district,” Gym said. “We want to delineate what a sanctuary district would do. Should [deportations] happen, we want commitments or promises or some kind of procedure to guarantee students’ safety.
“At the end of the day, all of us in this room are all in. We’re all in for you guys and we’re all in for your families,” Gym said, looking at the students from Furness. “We care about you. We’re not going to let you face this alone, and we’ll be with you all the way.”
See related story for list of immigration resources.