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California schools increase legal and counseling supports in wake of DACA's end

Dana Herrera, 23, is student at L.A. Valley College who plans to transfer to UCLA. She lives in Panorama City and came to Downtown Los Angeles for the CHIRLA rally supporting DACA on Sept. 1, 2017.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC
Dana Herrera, 23, is student at L.A. Valley College who plans to transfer to UCLA. She lives in Panorama City and came to Downtown Los Angeles for the CHIRLA rally supporting DACA on Sept. 1, 2017.

California colleges and K-12 school districts are stepping up their legal and counseling teams in the wake of President Donald Trump's decision to phase out the Obama-era protections for immigrants who arrived in the United States without documentation as children. 

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program has protected nearly 800,000 people nationwide from deportation — about 220,000 of those in California.

School officials stressed that immigration status does not affect eligibility to enroll in school and encouraged students who might be affected by the decision to terminate the program in six months to continue to pursue their education. 

Still, officials also condemned the decision and many said they are at least considering increasing the resources dedicated to providing students with legal help and emotional support. 

U.C. Riverside, for example, is considering using its legal resources in case their students’ protected status is threatened.

“We’ll certainly engage our university attorneys in a review of the change in policy,” said the school's Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Jim Sandoval. “We’ll reach out immediately to our students to advise them of the changes and provide them with as much counsel as possible. To the extent that there is an opportunity for us to petition on their behalf to remain in the states, then of course we would do that as well. We’re going to fully advocate for our students.”

The nine campuses of the Los Angeles Community College District enroll 250,000 students. About 11,000 of those students came to this country without the proper authorization.

“The federal action by President Trump will have a tremendous chill effect on all students who find themselves in this DREAMER, DACA, undocumented student status,” said Francisco Rodriguez, chancellor of the L.A. Community College District. “It sends the wrong signal to students who are contributing productively, making strides in the academic world, who are contributing to the local economy.”

He said there are about 61,000 undocumented students enrolled in California community colleges.

Some California college administrators said many of these students were distraught after Trump’s election last year and they’re prepared to help them now.

Fourteen California State University campuses – including those in Los Angeles, Northridge, Long Beach, Dominguez Hills, and San Bernardino – have Dream Centers on campus meant to help students who entered this country without the proper authorization.

“We don’t anticipate an impact to students pursuing their education,” said California State University spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp, since enrollment, tuition, and financial aid are not impacted by immigration status. "Where a student might be affected is if they have DACA status and then then [because of the elimination of the program] don’t have a job that allows them to pay for part of their education," he said. 

Some DACA recipients were even young enough to attend K-12 schools. Roughly 36 percent of applicants nationwide were between the ages of 15 and 18, according to a 2013 Brookings Institution report.

And California's public school leaders are bracing for ripple effects of ending DACA, even among children who hadn't applied. An estimated 13 percent of California public school students have at least one parent not authorized to live in the country. Perhaps 192,000 school-aged children in California are themselves living in the U.S. illegally.

The U.S. Supreme Court's 1982 decision in the Plyler v. Doe case guarantees K-12 students the right to a public education regardless of their citizenship status.

But public education officials are worried the end of DACA will stoke fresh fears among immigrant parents that schools might become targets for federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or "ICE," agents.

ICE guidelines currently discourage agents from raids, arrests or interviews in "sensitive sites," including schools or churches. But school leaders have reason to worry this policy could change. In February, ICE agents arrested an L.A. father shortly after he dropped his daughters off at a Highland Park charter school.

Tom Torlakson, California's state schools superintendent, said he has written ICE officials to ask whether they planned to change their guidelines on sensitive sites, but Torlakson said he received no indication such a change was in the offing.

"We think they should honor the ground rules of not going into childcare centers, not going into our public schools," he said. "These places should be safe havens."

Torlakson condemned the Trump administration's decision to begin dismantling DACA protections. "It's a pointless way to unsettle students and families."

Torlakson said more than 100 school districts have already taken steps to declare themselves as "safe havens" for immigrant students.

In a statewide letter to local education officials, Torlakson urged schools to reassure parents state and federal laws them from sharing sensitive student information to law enforcement. He also reminded parents they can use documents other than a birth certificate to enroll a child in school.

Officials in the state's largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, have assumed a particularly defensive stance, declaring they will not allow ICE agents onto their campuses unless they first consulting district leaders.

L.A. Unified School Board members have also said they would also resist "any future policies or executive action" that might result in disclosing student data.

In a joint statement, L.A. Unified Superintendent Michelle King joined all seven school board members in condemning Trump's decision to phase out DACA.

"I am concerned by this decision and its long-term impacts on the students, families and employees of L.A. Unified," King said in the statement. "These young immigrants have made valuable contributions to the community and the nation they consider their home, and they have earned the right to a permanent place in its history …

"We urge our lawmakers to act with urgency," the statement went on, "in resolving this issue and extending permanent protections to Dreamers."

This post was updated to include the statement from L.A. Unified.