Charter school advocates rally around immigrant students

Daisy Romero Chavarria was taking finals at the University of Pennsylvania and found it increasingly hard to concentrate. She worried her parents would face deportation in Texas.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency were arresting undocumented immigrants in the state.

Then, in May, Texas legislators passed a law allowing police officers to question the immigration status of anyone during routine stops. The law will go into effect in September.

“We learn to live with fear and uncertainty,” Chavarria said at a national gathering of charter school advocates in the nation’s capital. “I went to a mentor’s office to vent. I couldn’t talk to my parents about it. I did not want them to think I was worried.”

Chavarria said living in fear becomes a way of life.

“We don’t talk about it because we learn to live with it,” she said.

Chavarria is protected under DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — a program that provides a two-year work permit and temporary protection from deportation to young adults who arrived in the U.S. illegally as children. She said she worries the program will be rescinded.

The concerns of students like Chavarria animated discussions at the National Charter Schools Conference this week in Washington.

Some prominent figures in the charter school movement have advocated for undocumented students, arguing the children they serve should be protected. That advocacy has transcended the usual political divides over the future of public education.

In his first 100 days in office, President Donald Trump signed an executive order enhancing immigration enforcement.

Since then, arrests of undocumented immigrants are up 38 percent, according to USA Today. Chavarria and charter school officials said they worried about the future of DACA, since Trump has not made clear whether he will keep the program.

When he accepted the prestigious Broad Prize for charter schools in 2016, IDEA Public Schools founder Tom Torkelson vowed his network and the other finalists would spend the six-figure prize helping undocumented students make it to college.

This year, he shared the story of a recent high school graduate who was admitted to Tufts and Georgetown but did not want to leave the Rio Grande Valley because she was afraid of checkpoints on highways and authorities at airports.

As a result, she stayed in the valley, graduated and became a social studies teacher at IDEA thanks to DACA.

“We don’t have time anymore for this charter-versus-district argument,” Torkelson said. “We don’t have time anymore for union teachers, charter school teachers to be fighting. We’ve all got to come together, and we’ve all got to fight on behalf of our most vulnerable children.”

Mike Feinberg, co-founder of KIPP charter schools, took part in a panel discussion about legal protections for immigrant children. He said a third of the children in the schools he helps oversee are undocumented.

“What role does our school have in navigating these stressful situations?” he asked. “We clearly do not teach in bubbles. When our children come to school or are anxious or afraid, it is hard for them to learn.”

Viridiana Carrizales, managing director of DACA Corps member support at Teach for America, cited Plyler Vs. Doe, a court decision finding every student, regardless of their immigration status, has a constitutional right to receive a K-12 education.

“It is your responsibility to teach every child,” she said. “Think about the campus policies you can put in place, when an ICE officer comes to ask for a student. You shouldn’t be sharing any of your student’s information.”

Then, Carrizales got personal, sharing her story, living 14 years undocumented, surrounded by family members with the same status.

“My parents never came to the student-parent meetings,” she said. “It was not because my parents did not care about education. As you went into the school, the front office required an ID. My parents did not have an ID. I did not want them to be in the position that would jeopardize their status.”

Feinberg added after the panel discussion that schools can protect students to the full extent of the law and that they are not required to answer any questions from ICE officers without a warrant.

“There is a lot of not understanding what a school is obligated and not obligated to do,” he said.

Carrizales, meanwhile, said deportations don’t just affect immigrants.

“Many cities are concerned about the mass deportations that are happening and will continue to happen because a lot of the children that are deported are U.S. citizens that are being placed in foster care,” she said. “A lot of cities don’t have the capacity to deal with all these children that are left here.”

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BY Livi Stanford

Livi Stanford is former associate editor of redefinED. She spent her earlier professional career working at newspapers in Kansas, Massachusetts and Florida. Prior to her work at Step Up For Students, she covered the Lake County School Board, County Commission and local legislative delegation for the Daily Commercial in Leesburg. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas.