Teaching virtually in the time of Covid-19 under an explicitly anti-immigrant administration is something I never expected to do in my wildest imagination. I am currently a DACA recipient and middle school educator. DACA has allowed me to obtain a work permit so I can do what I love, which is to make sure that young people feel safe and cared for in the learning environment. In my journey to the classroom, I have seen the many ways that educators have to be flexible, before and during the pandemic.
Immigrants are well-positioned to be in the classroom to work with students and their families. An estimated 8,800 Deferred Action for Childhood recipients are currently working in K-12 schools. While every state in the country has experienced some teacher shortages, and all the more during the time of Covid-19, DACA has allowed undocumented individuals to work in education to meet the instructional needs of our students.
On that fateful day, March 13, 2020, our school prepared itself for what we thought would be a two week shut down. The two weeks quickly became a month, and then virtual teaching was extended indefinitely as Covid-19 rates in Los Angeles continue to be critical. While the country has become increasingly aware of operating in crisis mode, working in this state is a reality that I faced growing up. The following are some reflections that I have based on my experiences as a middle school educator and DACA beneficiary myself of how school leaders, fellow educators, and students and community members can cope and be proactive in dealing with the public health and immigration crisis.
For school leaders, you have power in cultivating an inclusive and sustainable environment for undocumented students. Here are some suggestions about the ways that you can support and truly be an ally at this time.
- The highest levels of school leadership must initiate conversations around supporting undocumented students and designing a culture of support for undocumented students. The organizing and communication should not be left to just the educators and the students. This could come in the form of a school-wide communication newsletter, a public forum, or a programming series where leadership is visibly talking about the experiences and unique needs of undocumented students. School leaders do not necessarily have to be experts around immigration law, but they should be able to show up and lead from the front. It makes a huge difference for students to be able to share with their educators and trusted adults information about their immigration situation and lived experiences. Now that school is taking place at home, it is more important than ever to be intentionally visible and to elevate resources that are available for specific populations.
- Ensure that your school has a dedicated budget or partnership to support undocumented students. The educators and counselors who advise students are often those who come from underrepresented communities themselves. Consider the compensation, recognition, and incentive for educators to be trained for adding value to the school community in efforts to support undocumented students. Too often, educators provide free labor by attending trainings on their own time, going over the CA DREAM Act and other financial aid opportunities, educating other school personnel on immigration, and soliciting external partners to present at the school regarding immigration issues. The work that these educators do should be acknowledged, elevated, and compensated.. A formal partnership can leverage the strategic strengths of a non-profit organization that will contribute to the immigrant-inclusive vision of the school.
- Assess the relationship between the interactions of immigrant students and their families and possible connection with law enforcement and the school-to-prison pipeline. In assessing this relationship, schools should ask themselves the following questions. Are your campus officers trained to be responsive to the needs of immigrant students? Can undocumented parents access the campus and resources with alternative forms of identification? How is your school ensuring that undocumented students’ information remains private and confidential? Is your school aware of the DHS sensitive locations memo that prohibits ICE arrests, interviews, and searches on school grounds, hospitals, places of worship, and demonstrations? To go one step further, how are situations that violate immigrant rights documented and reported as a standard part of compliance reporting? How is staff held accountable for these interactions?
For my fellow educators, let me share some of my insights around navigating the pandemic as a DACA recipient and educator supporting undocumented students.
- Acknowledge that undocumented students are resilient on their own and your role is to empower them in sharing their story and advocating for themselves. It takes courage for undocumented students to be vulnerable and share their immigration status outside of their close family. Invisibility is one of the most painful experiences in an undocumented person’s life. However, sharing their story for them as an ally robs them of the opportunity to develop the skills to navigate through high school and beyond. When a student shares this information with you, ask the student whether they need you to listen or to help them problem-solve. Even in problem-solving, it is important for the student to feel heard and for them to exercise agency in the process.
- Share resources intentionally and explicitly. I have observed that students in the transition to distance learning generally need extra guidance managing their schedules and completing their assignments. For undocumented students, resource sharing is especially important because there are institutional and systemic policies that exclude students based on their immigration status. Since students are having to adapt to a different environment, educators should provide explicit instruction and targeted support. The strategy for undocumented students works for other target student populations as well—support their efforts to do well in school, send them information about resources and services, and affirm them of the power of their own narrative.
- Expand your knowledge of the demographic representation in your classroom. When identifying disparities and determining why they exist, the narrative around immigration is much more nuanced. The usual metrics I see when considering the types of support for student populations usually include ethnicity/race, gender, abilities, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation. Within the immigrant community, there are different experiences to take into account. There are students that come from mixed-status families. There are students who are undocumented and Black. There are undocumented students who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community. While DACA beneficiaries have a specific need around immigration, analysis of data should be disaggregated and contextualized to complicate how different experiences shape an undocumented student’s interaction with you as the educator, the school, and the greater K-12 education system.
For my students and community members, here are the common advice points that I have been communicating in the context of the pandemic specifically for undocumented individuals.
- Create an emergency plan and gather documents you may need. The Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC), for example, created a work plan that can help immigrant families prepare for an emergency. It is important to keep these documents accessible and to get a firm grasp of what exactly constitutes a plan. A family preparation plan can consist, for example, of a communication method in case the family gets separated, an alternative meet-up place, a list of extended family members or trustworthy individuals to reach out to, and the contact information of a trusted lawyer. In the time of Covid-19, consider starting a discussion with your family about addressing healthcare needs, alternative guardians for quarantine and isolation, and creative sources of income. Your emergency plan should have a financial component for unforeseen expenses.
- Do your research for getting tested for Covid-19 and register for a vaccine. To my knowledge, there is no federal social security or immigration status requirement to sign up for a Covid-19 vaccine or testing. Each state has a different way of distributing the vaccine, so visit your state’s public health department website for the specific details . You can also ask your school about their efforts to distribute the vaccine and if they have any information around the vaccination process.
In closing, it is important to recognize that immigrants have always been essential. DACA is only a temporary solution. My perspectives as a middle school educator and DACA beneficiary gives me a sense of urgency to call upon our allies and co-conspirators to imagine more sustainable solutions in addressing the challenges of Covid-19 and immigration reform. As a college-graduate, now educator, the story of immigrants having the means to a decent life and the opportunities to be successful will continue to be the exception until we, as a whole, can create inclusive and equitable systems so that there is permanent protection and a path to citizenship for all.
Denise is currently a doctoral student at the University of Southern California (USC) in the Educational Leadership program. She became involved in the immigrant rights movement in 2011. Ever since then, she has been fighting to make spaces more inclusive for all individuals regardless of immigration status. She published articles advocating for the visibility of undocumented Asian Americans in higher education, created the blueprint for the retention program that is now the Undocumented Students Program at UCLA, and she was nominated for the Urban Educator of the Year Award in 2018 for her work in supporting undocumented students in the classroom.
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