Education

Creating Safe Spaces for New York’s Undocumented Students

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Angela, a senior at Sunset Park High School in Brooklyn, came to the United States from Mexico when she was three years old, but says she didn’t really feel “undocumented” until she got to high school.

“You want to apply to all these programs in your school, apply for a part-time job,” the eighteen-year-old tells the Voice. (Because of her immigration status, she asked that her real name be withheld.) “But you don’t have a Social Security number, so you don’t know what to do, or how to get around it.”

For the past two years, Angela has been part of a “Dream Team,” a collection of undocumented students and their allies organizing to create safer spaces for immigrants in public schools, and to try to get more investment from the Department of Education in providing support for its undocumented students. Over the past several years, the New York State Youth Leadership Council, a nonprofit that has pushed for financial aid and other support for undocumented students, has helped set up at least five Dream Teams in city public schools. At a time when undocumented students don’t quite know who to trust or whether the city is actually as much of a sanctuary as it says it is, Dream Teams provide vital spaces for students to talk openly about their status, their fears, and their needs.

“Many of our members are told by teachers or counselors that because they’re undocumented they shouldn’t push for higher education, they should just go to work,” explains NYSYLC co-director Angy Rivera. “Students are looking for resources, and instead they don’t have a place to go.”

“We needed to figure out how our schools could be a real sanctuary space, not only as a place for safety, but where you could learn about how to protect yourself and your family,” Angela adds.

Shortly after entering high school, Angela was directed by a teacher to Jennifer Queenan, an English as a Second Language teacher who serves as advisor to Sunset Park High School’s Dream Team. Through Queenan’s group, Angela connected with city and nonprofit programs that accepted students without social security numbers, enabling her to get stipends for internships. She also helped other immigrant and undocumented students organize around legislation like the NY DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented students to qualify for financial aid.

“Once I met with other immigrants as a group, we began to feel safer — you become a community,” says Angela. “I learned about how other students had to cross the border on foot — things I thought only our parents had to do.”

Queenan is a member of Teach Dream, a group of educators and counselors working to make city schools safer for undocumented students. Since she began teaching in Sunset Park several years ago, Queenan has become the school’s unofficial “immigrant liaison,” someone to whom other teachers refer students when they have questions about immigration. Queenan leads the weekly “Dream Team” meeting, which includes not only undocumented students, but also students from mixed-status families, and allies. She compares it to a meeting of the Gay-Straight Alliance, where students can talk about actions they can take, share information, and discuss issues to organize around. Dream Teams citywide have worked to help organize “Coming Out of the Shadows” rallies (where undocumented students talk openly about their status), end overpolicing of public school students — especially in instances where misdemeanors can lead to deportation — and organize a campaign to get more social workers in schools.

Now, the Sunset Park Dream Team is pushing the Department of Education to create a designated liaison in every school. “If our schools are going to be spaces for the community, which I think they should be, people need someone that they know and trust to go to with their questions,” Queenan says. “Obviously we can’t give legal advice, but something we do to the best of our abilities in Teach Dream is know what the trustworthy organizations are, so when students and families do have questions, we can create those connections.” Over 300 people subscribe to the Teach Dream listserv, which supplies educators and counselors with information they can help spread to students, she notes. “But we do that all on our own time, and teachers don’t have a lot of free time, contrary to popular belief.”

The campaign has taken on added urgency since Donald Trump’s election. On January 30, parents of students at city schools received a letter from the New York City Department of Education assuring them that despite Trump’s executive order on deportations, the city was still “committed to protecting the right of every student in New York City to attend public school, regardless of immigration status.” But the letter also included less reassuring words: “If ICE officers go to a school for immigration enforcement purposes,” wrote Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, “they will be referred to the principal, who will take appropriate action.”

The next month, Dream Teams rallied in Brooklyn to demand that Fariña clarify exactly what form that “appropriate action” would take. Was there a citywide policy on ICE inquiries into students’ residency statuses? Or could principals act on their own, endangering immigrant students based on their own prejudices? By the end of March, the DOE had issued a more detailed set of guidelines for when ICE agents come to city schools (they will be made to wait outside of school property while school officials confer with DOE attorneys), and announced a series of know-your-rights trainings for students across the city; a DOE spokesperson tells the Voice that student organizing had no impact on this decision, but given the amount of pressure that students exerted, that’s hard to believe.

Still, the DOE has resisted proposals for citywide immigrant liaisons. (The department declined to respond to the Voice‘s queries about the proposals.) Queenan is working with informal liaisons at other schools to keep pressing the DOE on the need for support for the position.

After her graduation this summer, Angela plans to attend community college in Manhattan, so she can stay close to her family. Both her younger siblings were born here and are citizens, and she feels better at a CUNY school, where she can connect with other undocumented students. A Dream Team already exists at the college she’ll be attending.

“You spend all day in school,” Angela tells me. “The least they can do is make sure that you can feel safe.”

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