President Donald Trump’s sweeping order that temporarily banned residents of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States sent shock waves through some of the nation’s schools, leaving educators scrambling to assure frightened refugee and immigrant students that their schools are safe places.
The order blocked citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen from coming into the U.S. for 90 days. It blocked refugees from any country from entering the U.S. for 120 days and banned refugees from Syria indefinitely. A federal judge suspended Trump’s order earlier this month, allowing those who had been previously banned to enter. That decision was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit last week. But educators are still grappling with uncertainty, not knowing the next steps the White House will take on immigration and how it will affect their students.
“[There are] a lot of unknowns right now,” said Elizabeth Demchak, the principal at Claremont International High School in New York City. “Any time you’re talking about people’s status in the country, there will be fear. We have to try and give [students] as much stability as possible.”
The immigration ban is one of the actions by Trump that are concerning educators in his early weeks in office. Trump has also signed executive orders to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, strip federal funding from “sanctuary cities” that shield undocumented immigrants and establish new immigration enforcement priorities, which “could net hundreds of thousands of people without any convictions,” Politico says.
Demchak’s school, based in the South Bronx, is home to hundreds of Spanish, Arabic, and Bengali-speaking students. It also has a growing population of refugees from Yemen, whose citizens are banned from U.S. entry for now under Trump’s executive order. The school is part of The Internationals Network for Public Schools, a nationwide nonprofit that serves about 9,000 students newly-immigrated to the U.S.
Many educators — including those in the American Federation of Teachers — don’t support President Trump’s stance on immigration.
The orders “violate the moral and political direction,” AFT wrote in a message on its website, saying the actions “will harm many AFT members and millions of our students, patients, families, friends and neighbors.”
But a large number of Americans do support tighter restrictions around who is allowed into the country. In a poll conducted by Reuters/Ipsos a few days after the Jan. 27 order, 49 percent of Americans said they agreed with the ban; 41 percent said they opposed it. Those numbers have fluctuated between polling groups in the days since Trump has issued the order.
Immigrants in U.S. Schools
In 2015, more than 4.7 million foreign-born students were enrolled in U.S. schools — about 6 percent of the American school population, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Another 20 million are children of foreign-born parents.
Influxes of immigrant students—who may have large gaps in schooling and whose linguistic and cultural differences can present challenges for educators—have at times caused friction in communities where some parents raised concerns that new arrivals negatively impact their children’s education.
The anxiety over Trump’s actions are particularly acute for students and educators in immigrant-rich areas of the country, like Minnesota’s Somali strongholds, California’s Latino communities and a growing number of neighborhoods friendly to Syrian refugees.
The immigration ban also hit home for places like Houston and Nashville, Tenn., both with a growing number of Islamic students. The districts also have large Kurdish communities, many of whom come from countries targeted in the immigration ban.
In Nashville, at least 1,000 students from affected countries are in the city’s schools. While schools generally don’t track the immigration status of students, they often collect data about students’ country of origin and home language if it’s not English.
“The United States is supposed to be a country of opportunity and we believe that immigrants bring a richness to our country that we should maximize,” Nashville Superintendent Shawn Joseph said. “It starts with educating them.”
The Trump administration’s aggressive stance has made that job tougher, some educators say.
“It certainly does strain the ability of young people and their families to trust institutions,” said Roberto Gonzales, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “It behooves schools to take a much more active role in sowing these seeds of trust and really growing them.”
As the daughter of Dominican immigrants, Principal Nedda de Castro relates to her students at the International School at Prospect Heights in Brooklyn. Like them, she learned English in school. She recalls school as where she explored what it means to be American.
But many of her students are constantly reminded that they’re not. And some are giving up on school.
“Some of the students are assuming that they’re just going to be deported anyway and starting to talk about how there’s really no point in coming to school anymore,” de Castro said. “It’s a lot of lost potential.”
Fate for Deferred Action
Nearly 39,000 Muslim refugees entered the United States in fiscal 2016, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. State Department data, and more than half hailed from Somalia and Syria. School districts from Southern California to Connecticut have seen a surge in Syrian enrollment in recent years. Somali refugees continue to flow to metro areas like Minneapolis and Seattle, where already established communities exist.
Minneapolis has more than 4,100 Somali students; many are refugees.
The district “recognizes and shares the pain and fear many of them have felt after recent events,” Minneapolis Superintendent Ed Graff wrote to Education Week.
Refugee students face similar obstacles common to some immigrant students new to the country—interrupted education and learning a new language, along with adjusting to stigma tied to their race, religion, and skin color, said Gonzales, the Harvard professor.
On February 3, a federal district court judge in Seattle temporarily halted Trump’s order to stop the flow of citizens from the Muslim-majority nations. Trump took to Twitter to lambaste the ruling and the judge who issued it. “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned.”
Initially, however, Trump’s effort to reverse the ruling failed, as a federal appeals court upheld the order of U.S. District Judge James L. Robart.
While Trump’s executive orders play out, many are awaiting the fate of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, an Obama-administration policy that gave temporary deportation reprieves to more than 740,000 undocumented youth.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump promised to repeal DACA. He’s also repeatedly said his administration will develop a plan for the young immigrants, but has yet to offer specifics. The uncertainty for DACA recipients—many of them immigrants from Mexico and Central America—is reverberating broadly in Latino communities.
“The fear … is very present, not just for those who are undocumented, but those who are Latino, as well as their teachers and loved ones who have also felt maligned by the rhetoric used throughout the election and since Trump won,” said Marisa Bono, a lawyer with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
A broad array of K-12 education leaders have called on the Trump administration to continue protections for undocumented immigrant youth brought to the U.S. as children, popularly known as DREAMers.
Richard Carranza, the superintendent in Houston, is one. So is Joseph, the Nashville schools chief. Both men joined more than 1,000 other education leaders in signing a petition calling for saving the DACA policy. The list of supporters also includes Teach For America, the American Federation of Teachers, and charter school organizations.
“It’s important to be proactive in reassuring the community that the district is here to educate children, anyone that shows up to our doors,” Carranza said.
Federal Aid at Risk?
Trump’s order to punish jurisdictions that don’t cooperate with immigration authorities has put a target on cities that vow to protect their undocumented residents.
Los Angeles Unified is one district anticipating potential fallout for schools that pledge to shield their students. Its school board has been outspoken about its refusal to cooperate with any immigration enforcement efforts.
Slashing federal aid could deal a blow to any district. In L.A. Unified, roughly $700 million in federal funds flow into the district’s coffers each year. Chicago and Clark County, Nev., may also be at risk for declaring their districts as “sanctuary” campuses.
Seattle’s mayor allotted $250,000 for undocumented students in the city’s schools. The school board directed staff to ban immigration agents from school grounds unless they get permission from the superintendent or the district’s lawyers.
Even with a range of leaders pledging support for immigrant youth, it’s hard to allay their fears, said Bono, the MALDEF lawyer.
“We want to hope for the best,” she said, “but have to expect the worst.”