If President Trump has gone to great lengths to reverse Obama-era immigration policies, schools across the country have gone to greater ones to protect their immigrant populations.
Among other groups, undocumented immigrants have been a particular focus for the administration. Five days after his inauguration, Trump signed a pair of executive orders which greatly expanded the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE).
John Kelly, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, issued two memos less than a month after the President’s orders, which broadened the department’s “priorities for removal.” This, in addition to the recent ICE raids on immigrant communities, left undocumented students uncertain of their futures.
Several colleges have openly identified themselves as “sanctuary campuses” since the November election. Others, including a majority of California’s public schools, have adopted more subtle policies to support their undocumented students.
“The UC system, the CSU system, and the California Community College system have all been unified in our response to the language from the federal government,” said Dr. Paul Jarrell, external vice president of educational programs. “We’re not releasing any records and we want to protect our students to every extent possible.”
Under the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), schools are not supposed to release any information about a student without his or her consent. However, Jarrell and many other California college administrators have recently renewed their commitment to protecting those rights, including records about students’ immigration statuses.
The City College administration has also instructed staff not to share any student information as part of that recommitment. By law though, those departments are still required to turn over some information to local or state officials if they receive a court order regarding a specific student.
Federal ICE agents, on the other hand, are generally supposed to stay away from schools and other sensitive locations altogether.
According to the ICE’s online resources, “The [Department of Homeland Security] is committed to ensuring that people seeking to participate in activities or utilize services provided at any sensitive location are free to do so without fear or hesitation.”
However, some City College faculty have raised concerns that the policy might not hold under the new administration. Unlike laws, policies are not set in stone and can be changed at the stroke of a pen.
“I’ve wondered out loud what I might do should [ICE agents] show up on the college campus, and I don’t have a good answer for that,” history department chair Danielle Swiontek said. “I had a DACA student in my office asking me if I thought Trump was going to deport her and all I could say was ‘I don’t know.’”
City College hosted several information forums to address those issues, including workshops to help undocumented students apply for financial aid. Under AB540, also known as the DREAM Act, Californian students without legal status can apply for state-based financial aid and in-state tuitions. Around 450 City College students applied for aid under the DREAM Act last spring.
On February 24, the California Community College Chancellor’s Office released a statement that DREAM applications were down more than 40 percent compared to last year. A last minute effort by state officials, local politicians, and our own Financial Aid Office helped recover that loss. Last week, the California Department of Education reported a five percent increase in applications over last year.
The reason for the initial decrease isn’t clear yet, but City College Director of Communications Luz Reyes-Martin said she suspects that the presidential election last year may have played a key role.
“I heard anecdotally from students here that, the day after the election, they thought ‘Oh, my financial aid is gone,’” Reyes-Martin said.
Although President Trump signed an executive order in January that called for the defunding of sanctuary cities, the federal government hasn’t defunded any cities to date. Federal financial aid programs have also been left intact by executive policies so far.
The current tension in American politics is almost palpable. When newspapers and politicians throw a permanent spotlight on the federal scene, sometimes it’s easy to forget what’s going on at home. For now, undocumented students can breathe a small sigh of relief knowing that City College supports their right to financial aid, right to higher education and right to equality on campus.