Running an urban high school is always a challenge. Boston Community Leadership Academy (BCLA) headmaster Francine Locker says President Trump’s election created a new one: mitigating student panic.
“The day after the election students were coming into the office, they were going to their teachers [asking] is my family going to be separated?” said Locker. “Are they going to take my mother? Are they going to take my father?”
As a candidate, the president promised to crack down on illegal immigration. He appeared to make good on that promise when he signed an executive order to accelerate deportation of undocumented residents.
“When my parents go to work, it’s scary [to think] that they won’t come back,” said Iris, a BCLA senior who requested WGBH News use her first name only. A native of Guatemala, she’s been in the United States since the seventh grade and is active in her school’s chapter of an organization called Student Immigration Movement.
“We still have rights, it’s not like we don’t have any rights,” she said.
The Department of Justice spelled out those rights in a 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter, reminding schools that students are entitled to an education “whether present in the United States legally or otherwise." The letter also indicates schools are restricted from asking about the immigration status of a student or family to establish residency or enrollment.
The result is that in Boston—and other school districts—it’s policy not to ask about immigration status.
But in a school where 40 percent of students speak a language other than English at home, Locker says fear is palpable.
“The academics are one level,” Locker said. "You can’t get to the academics if the heart and the soul are bleeding. We operate as a family. We’re trying to help people stay safe.”
In February, Boston Public Schools launched a new website called We Dream Together, which features information about immigration rights, a hate crime hotline and scholarship information for undocumented students. College is the brass ring for many newcomers.
“We’re selling dreams, we’re telling students it’s achievable,” Locker said. “Now they’re saying it might be too painful to dream because of all this could come crashing down.”
A student who asked to be identified only as Elizabeth says the threat of being deported has never felt more real, but she says living anywhere else is also unimaginable.
“We’ve built our life here and we’ve changed in a way to accommodate everything that’s here,” said Elizabeth. “So if we go back, it’s not going to be the same.”