By Sabrina Holcomb
Educators are sounding the alarm that students have become actual targets and collateral damage in the Trump administration’s assault on immigrants. The president’s speech to Congress, where he talked about immigrants mainly through the lens of the criminal justice system, and the shocking arrest and detention of DACA students in different states, send a chilling message.
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The current crisis has sent Loan Dao, a professor of Asian American studies at UMass Boston, into emergency preparedness mode. Dao, who came to the U.S. with her family as refugees from the Vietnam War, leads the Immigrant Student Task Force, a campus advocacy program run by teacher volunteers and serving a diverse group of DACA college students. She recently spoke with NEA Edjustice about the new urgency of her work.
How are ramped-up rhetoric and escalating ICE raids affecting your students?
If you met these kids, you would assume, and they would say, “We’re from here.” They’re childhood arrivals—culturally they see themselves as Americans. Many come from mixed status families and communities who have been in the U.S. for many years. So imagine how this is messing with their heads. Knowing their community is targeted is traumatizing, making it extremely difficult to focus on their studies. The rhetoric has such racial underpinnings that many students of color feel particularly vulnerable as potential targets of state violence and random acts of violence by individuals.
You work with DREAMers, students who are held up as models for other undocumented youth. According to the Department of Homeland Security, these students don’t have anything to fear, right?
There are several cases around the country now of DACA students being detained. A youth activist, Daniela Vargas, who was in the process of renewing her status, was seized after she spoke out at a news conference. This sends an added message repressing activism to any student who is thinking of speaking out.
But when people hear about DACA students in college they think, ‘well, they have it made. They’re on their way.’
Even in college, DACA students have to fight depression and a perpetual sense of hopelessness about their future. They’re ineligible for federal aid, and rarely eligible for state aid, so they have to pay the entirety of their tuition and fees out of pocket. Some can only afford to take one, maybe two, classes a semester. There have been students who have taken 10 years to finish their degree. They’re also unsure how prospective employers might view their temporary status. Yet, I’ve witnessed the tremendous resilience and courage of students to overcome fears and obstacles and stand up for their rights and the rights of others.
How is the Task Force responding?
We’re asking the university, unions, and legal organizations for emergency hotlines and legal counsel and support for undocumented students and workers on campus. We’re organizing events and Know Your Rights trainings and requesting additional training for university staff and administrators. We’re encouraging faculty, staff, and students to create an inclusive campus environment to assure immigrant students they’re in a safe place. We’re also helping to recruit and retain students by raising scholarship funds and researching financial aid options.
What’s your advice to K-16 schools and educators on supporting undocumented students during the current crisis?
Build trust and relationships first and foremost. Students have consistently said the most important factors that kept them in school were a sense of support, belonging and acceptance, and community. Take these steps:
- Put “emergency preparedness” responses in place for students and staff to ensure they have a hotline, legal counsel, and a campus representative advocating on their behalf and communicating with their loved ones if they’re detained.
- Publicly demand an inclusive and safe environment for students who may not feel they can speak out.
- Train guidance counselors and administrators to support undocumented students and those in mixed-status families.
- Work with your local, state, and national representatives to advocate for protection of targeted communities and the separation between law enforcement and immigration enforcement.
- Discuss college options and affordability with students and their families, and bring former or current undocumented college students to talk to them.
- Openly talk with students about how their status and the current climate impact their motivation, hopefulness for the future, and academics.
What keeps you and your students going?
Our awareness, engagement, and alliances are more intense now. We’re heartened to hear people say “we support you,” “we feel this nation is better for the contributions of immigrants and refugees.” That open love and support gives undocumented students the emotional security they need to make it through this and come out stronger.