ALBANY — The Trump administration’s decision to end the DACA program prompted an outpouring of responses from New York educators and administrators who vowed to stand by students known as “Dreamers.”
“As long as the kids are here, we have a constitutional obligation to educate them,” said Jay Worona, deputy executive director and general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association. “They’re presumed to be citizens until proven otherwise.”
The administration announced Tuesday that it would phase out the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program over six months, but suggested that Congress could find a legislative solution. There are nearly 42,000 DACA grantees in New York State, officials have said.
Although schools have pledged to shield students after the program is shut down, they can only go so far without serious legal ramifications.
“If a person gets detained by Immigration and they’re a student, there’s nothing much we can do for them if they don’t have a legal remedy,” said Allan Wernick a professor at Baruch College and director of CUNY Citizenship Now!, a program that provides free immigration services to students and members of the community.
Still, some schools began putting supports in place earlier this year when the Trump administration restricted travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Others have now begun to provide legal and financial aid to students who will lose their protection status when DACA ends.
Here are five ways school districts and institutions of higher education are supporting Dreamers:
Following Trump’s travel ban in February, the state Education Department, in collaboration with the office of State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman,released guidance to school districts about protecting the rights of immigrant students.
The guidance reminded districts of their duty to comply with existing state and federal laws including the protection of personal information, but also noted that student information cannot be disclosed without the consent of a parent except in limited situations.
The department this week reminded districts of the guidelines, which still apply.
Because of age restrictions, the ending of the program mostly affects college students, though some high-school students could have DACA status. And the same privacy rights apply for college and university students, said Matthew Kolken, an immigration attorney and partner at the Buffalo-based Kolken & Kolken.
“They can’t actively block the U.S. government from enforcing U.S. immigration law,” he said of the schools. “With regards to privacy concerns, they aren’t necessarily required to or permitted to release the specific info of an individual’s academic career.”
Districts, colleges and universities could refuse to turn over that information unless required to do so by a warrant — which many institutions, including SUNY and CUNY campuses, have pledged to do.
Similar to the releasing of student data, schools may also choose to bar immigration officers on campus without a warrant, said Mae Ngai, a Columbia University history professor who teaches about immigration and citizenship.
Under the Obama administration, schools, hospitals and churches were considered safe spaces where immigration officers were not supposed to go unless there was an emergency, Ngai said. The policy has since been rescinded, she said, adding that there have been instances of agents going into elementary schools.
Columbia University has adopted a policy requiring a warrant, as have many other schools, although it’s not entirely clear what is private property and what is public property in public schools, Kolken said.
In their guidance to schools, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Schneiderman said that law enforcement officers may not remove a student from school property, or interrogate a student, without the consent of the student’s guardian, except when a crime has been committed.
It’s a fine line, however, because schools are not supposed to shield individuals from deportation by keeping them in an area that would prevent agents from executing the law, Kolken said. If they did so, they could be prosecuted.
Practically speaking, deportation isn’t the main concern resulting from the end of DACA because it’s typically enforced if someone commits a crime, Wernick said, adding that immigration officers rarely come on campuses.
CUNY has been offering free screenings and providing legal immigration advice since the presidential election last year, Wernick said.
Approximately 40 percent of CUNY’s about 222,000 undergraduates are foreign born, according to CUNY data. There is no exact estimate of how many students are protected under DACA, as the colleges don’t ask that information, but Wernick said it’s likely 1,000 to 2,000 students.
Through CUNY Citizenship Now! — the most extensive university-based legal assistance program for immigrants in the nation — attorneys and paralegals help students explore whether they qualify for a more permanent status, such as a green card or as a refugee or asylum-seeker, he said.
Following Tuesday’s announcement, the CUNY centers have been making DACA student renewals a priority, he said. Students have the ability to apply for a two-year renewal through Oct. 5.
CUNY also held a Facebook Live session this week to get information out to students. Many other institutions are also providing pro-bono counseling, Ngai said, including Columbia.
Although the fear of deportation is looming, the most imminent threat associated with losing the DACA status is losing the ability to work, Wernick said. “If people lose their DACA, they’re going to lose their jobs. If they lose their jobs, they lose their income… [and potentially] their ability to go to college.”
Many DACA students not only need the income to pay for school, but to support their families, Ngai said. Ending DACA takes away students’ “right to travel, it takes away their authorization to work,” she said. “If universities can give them additional financial aid…that’s the best thing they can do.”
Last year Columbia said that even if a student lost his or her DACA work authorization, the university would increase his or her scholarship or financial aid, Ngai said.
Other schools are taking similar actions. CUNY, for example, this week pledged to assist students in finding additional scholarships. SUNY, in a January boardresolution, agreed to continue to allow undocumented students to pay resident tuition.
The state as a whole could take action as well, passing the DREAM Act, which extends college tuition subsidies to undocumented immigrants. The measure has passed the Democratic-led Assembly six years in a row, but has failed to make it through the Republican-led Senate.
The support of leaders in education and in government, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Elia, state Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and the heads of both the State and City University systems, sends a strong message both to the federal government and the affected students, Worona said.
Schneiderman and 14 other attorneys general are also taking legal actions, suingthe Trump administration over its decision to end the program.
That support could lead to federal legislative action, Kolken said.
“The silver lining about all of this, is that everyone is talking about DACA now and there is widespread support, which is bipartisan, for protecting these individuals,” he said, adding that Congress can “push through legislation that will solve the problem and will provide a permanent solution for these people and could potentially result in their parents getting a solution as well.”
Still, there are limitations, Worona said.
“We can lobby, we can sue, but at the end of the day …the states and the school districts are subservient to the federal government,” he said. “In the interim, they can make it clear what their philosophical view is.”