Oakland school officials vow to protect DACA recipients

Oakland International High School mural

A mural at Oakland International High School painted by students.

Last week, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration’s plans to rescind the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides temporary legal status to undocumented children who came to the United States before age 16. Oakland is home to thousands of recipients, and their future here is now uncertain. But Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell wants their families to know they are not alone.

“We are a Sanctuary District and no political decision will weaken our commitment to do everything in our power to support our Dreamers—the students, staff and family members who are DACA recipients,” Johnson-Trammell wrote in a press release issued on September 5. “We will draw on our District value of Students First to keep our focus on the needs of Dreamers. Counselors and staff at school health centers will be available to care for our students today and in the coming weeks.”

As a sanctuary district, schools do not share student records with immigration authorities, and immigration officials are not allowed on campus grounds unless they file appropriate legal action. Students are protected while on campus grounds, and “it is essential that we not let this decision [on DACA] interrupt learning or prevent children from coming to school,” Johnson-Trammell wrote.

The district has partnered with local organizations including the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and We Are Here To Stay, to provide information, resources, and to host workshops. There will be a free DACA renewal workshop on Friday, September 15, at the Centro Legal de la Raza, where experts will assist DACA recipients whose permits expire between now and March 5, 2018 in renewing their application.

John Sasaki, communications director for the school district, said many young students are fearful for themselves, their classmates, and their teachers who are protected by DACA. “We talked to some students last week who are concerned about one of their instructional aides who is a Dreamer. Certainly, the concern is that something could happen and that the educator could lose the right to be here, in Oakland, in California, and in the United States,” Sasaki said.

DACA was initiated by the Obama administration in 2012. Under this program, minors received protection for two-year deferment periods that delayed the potential of deportation, and allowed the recipients to attend school and receive work permits. California has the highest number of DACA recipients in the country, with upwards of 220,000 initial applications approved, according to the Pew Research Center.

Sasaki said the school district does not collect DACA information on Oakland students, and could not provide an estimate of how many recipients are enrolled at district schools.

Kateri Dodds Simpson, a high school teacher at Life Academy in Fruitvale and the program director at East Oakland Dreamers, a non-profit organization that helps undocumented students pursue college degrees, said the most important work people can do right now is provide accurate information and to help eligible people apply for renewal. “The administration at Life [Academy] has been really proactive and encouraging of students to come seek out myself or other members who have information about deferred action. They have been super supportive and cooperative, and I would say OUSD has been the same,” Dodds Simpson said.

She said the immediate focus for Oakland schools and educators is to spread the word about the application renewal process, “because that’s the most actionable item currently.” Her group began a “bulletin board campaign,” posting information in English and in Spanish on bulletin boards across Oakland campuses. East Oakland Dreamers also held workshops at schools for parents and teachers to assist in the renewal process.

Dodds Simpson said they are doing whatever they can to reach immigrant families. “I’ve been making a lot of phone calls, email blasting, social media. I think that every social advocacy organization is trying to reach out in every way possible. We’re texting kids, calling families. Folks that we helped put through DACA with clinics, we are calling their families, and just trying to get the word out as quickly as possible,” she said.

At Skyline High School in North Oakland, Guadalupe Gomez works for the school’s One Land One People Youth Center, which advocates for quality education and social justice for immigrant students. Since the DACA news was announced, Gomez and other faculty at Skyline have organized public workshops to answer questions about next steps parents and students should take to pursue legal status. The most important thing, Gomez said, is that people get accurate information. “They need to be informed with the DACA process. They need to have all the information ready and to create a plan,” Gomez said.

Skyline staff, along with district administrators, have offered workshops for educators to train them in discussing DACA and legal immigration status with their students. With the help of the training workshops, “the teachers are able to talk with their students” and inform them of their options, Gomez said.

Still, Gomez said, many students in Oakland are deeply troubled. “They are fearful, they are worried, they are scared. They have a lot of feelings, and it’s mostly the worry, the sadness,” said Gomez.

Despite this fear and heavy hearts, district officials say they have a strong commitment to making students and families in Oakland feel supported. “For all of our students, we will do anything that we can, anything within our power to protect them, no matter what is going on around us,” Sasaki said.

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