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'I Have Children Crying In The Classroom'

LA Johnson

On a cold Friday morning, more than 50 people sit in the auditorium of the Benjamin Franklin Health Science Academy in Brooklyn. Many have small children fidgeting on their laps.

The families are here for a "Know Your Rights" forum on immigration hosted by U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., and the local school district. Given the new, intensified immigration enforcement priorities announced by the Department of Homeland Security in February, the purpose is to help people understand their legal rights with regards to asylum, applications for citizenship and more.

A representative from Mayor Bill de Blasio's office speaks, followed by representatives of legal-assistance and community groups. During the Q&A, one woman broke into tears as she described, in Spanish, her fears of deportation.

There are many tears these days, says the woman who initiated this event, the school's parent coordinator, Christian Rodriguez.

"I have children crying in the classroom, crying in my office," she says. "When I ask them, 'Why are you crying?' They have expressed to me that they don't want their moms to be apprehended and taken away from them. It's something heavy on my heart."

Rodriguez has been the parent coordinator at this pre-K through 8th grade school ever since New York City's Department of Education created the position at schools citywide in 2003. Before that, she worked in Velazquez's office.

Enrollment in this school, on the Williamsburg/Bedford-Stuyvesant border of Brooklyn, is more than 80 percent Hispanic. Rodriguez says the families here come primarily from Mexico, then the Dominican Republic, followed by elsewhere in Central America. "I am from Nicaragua and as an immigrant also, can relate to their suffering and the situation they are going through right now," she says.

Under new directives issued in February by the Trump administration, anyone with deportation orders already issued, and anyone convicted of even a minor crime like a traffic offense, can be targeted for immediate removal. This is a change from the Obama administration's policy, when suspected gang members and felons received the highest priority from law enforcement.

The attorneys and community workers at the event advised attendees to be prepared: Don't drive with burned-out taillights. Don't exceed the speed limit. If you have an attorney, carry his or her business card at all times. If ICE — Immigration and Customs Enforcement — comes to your home or stops you on the street, they are allowed to call themselves "police." But they can't come inside your home or car without a warrant unless you invite them in. You are allowed to ask for a warrant and to make them slip the warrant under the door.

An officer from the New York Police Department told the families that city police won't ask for anyone's immigration status, say if you are the witness to a crime. This pledge forms part of New York City's "sanctuary city" designation.

Similarly, public schools here don't ask for, or keep a record of, anyone's immigration status. And schools have pledged not to "grant unlimited access" to ICE agents. Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina has sent home a letter with all students citywideunderlining that point.

Not knowing what the future may bring, Rodriguez says many families have asked her for help creating what are called "parental directives."

These are legal documents designating a caregiver for one's minor children in the event that a parent is deported. Families may be split up if their children are either born in the U.S. and have citizenship, or are allowed to remain under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.

At the Know Your Rights forum, one mother asked how old a designated caregiver had to be: Was 18 OK? "Twenty-one," was the answer.

Another woman asked what she should do if detained by ICE, since she has no income and no money to post bail. "You can ask that it be reduced, but you don't have the right to be set free without a bond," came the reply from one of the experts.

Rodriguez says she's glad that so many parents and community members showed up to the forum, although she was hoping for even more. In previous years when she's tried to hold immigration workshops, she says, people didn't come because they were afraid.

This time, she says, "When I extended my invitation [to parents,] that was the first thing that I mentioned: that they know me for so many years and that I have their best interests at heart."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.
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