January 2016 Issue
December 22, 2015

Union launches program to help undocumented students, families

Author: By Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
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Students, from left, Eun Jung Lee, Serge Carms, Mah Rukh and Sabrina Balram talk about what it’s like to be undocumented and separated from family during a panel discussion that followed a screening at NYSUT headquarters of the documentary “I Learn America.”
Caption: Students, from left, Eun Jung Lee, Serge Carms, Mah Rukh and Sabrina Balram talk about what it’s like to be undocumented and separated from family during a panel discussion that followed a screening at NYSUT headquarters of the documentary “I Learn America.” Photo by Marty Kerins Jr.

Craggy boundaries outline colorful countries on the big world map in Patrice Delehanty's Clifton Park classroom. The larger ones stand out like grand estates: Russia, United States, China, Canada. But the homelands of most of Delehanty's students are much smaller: Haiti, Korea, Guyana, Jordan, Pakistan, Dominican Republic.

The students were brought here by their parents, or they waited years to join them. Some came under dangerous conditions. Some escaped conflict and war. Others came by plane, joining a parent who works here as an engineer or scientist.

Undocumented immigrant students are filling New York schools in ever-increasing numbers, from Utica to New York City, to Long Island and to Rochester — where nearly 600 people showed up at a symposium on immigrant children, coordinated by Spencerport TA President John Kozlowski. Rochester TA President Adam Urbanski spoke about his own experience coming to America as a young boy with his parents and eight siblings to escape communist Poland.

"Supporting immigrant children and their families is a bedrock of a country built on immigrants," said NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale, who oversees social justice issues for the union. "We must continue to advocate for these individuals who enrich our society and culture."

The State Education Department reports that the number of English language learners enrolled in New York state public schools has increased 20 percent over the last decade. As of April 2014, the number totaled 214,378 students who speak more than 160 languages.

"The literacy level is the challenge," said Delehanty, a member of the Shenendehowa Teachers Association. "Some students had never been to school in their country." Others had their education cut short because of war, or a need to work, or school was just too far away.

Here in the U.S., the students quickly learn education is the game-changer. Yet, after graduating high school, they come to an unscalable fence. How can they possibly get into a U.S. college as undocumented citizens?

NYSUT is launching a program — NYSUT Dreams — that will directly help ELL students and their families navigate the complexities of gaining legal status.

The first stop is Utica, Oneida County, which is on track to begin in early 2016. NYSUT Dreams will use community dinners and educational sessions to provide families with information and forms for access to college. Families will receive help filling out paperwork for the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which allows certain undocumented children to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation.

Meanwhile, NYSUT, Rural Migrant Ministries and other groups continue to advocate strongly for state passage of the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors), which would give undocumented minors an opportunity to enlist in the military or go to college.

The NYSUT Dreams project also invites immigrants to union halls, along with leaders from the faith community. Immigrants will be educated about unions and workers' rights. Undocumented workers are often reluctant to speak up because of fear of deportation.

"The NYSUT Dreams project plans to meet immigrant students and their families wherever they are, and help them advance as far as possible along a trajectory toward full rights, equal protections and educational opportunities," said Tricia Marsh, an English as a New Language teacher and member of the Utica TA who has been working to set up the pilot.

"Many of these families have little opportunity in their communities and fear deportation because they are undocumented," she said. "This project will open so many doors not only for the refugee families but the community as a whole."

Marsh said it is important for educators to be aware of the tools and resources available to immigrant students since they are usually the first ones to whom a student discloses his or her undocumented status.

Utica is a prime location for a pilot project. The city has a foreign-born population of 17.6 percent, with more than a quarter of the population (26.6 percent) speaking a language other than English at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Oneida County now has one of the largest concentrations of refugees in the U.S.

"Their parents came here for an opportunity to be safer ... These minors did not come here of their own free will," said Sarina Wallace, a Middletown senior who worked on the film "DREAMers Among Us," one of two documentaries on the topic presented at NYSUT this fall.

A group of immigrant students spoke to a roomful of educators after the documentary, "I Learn America," was shown at NYSUT headquarters.

"Those kids aren't issues, they're assets," said Jean-Michel Dissard, the film's co-producer. "How we fare in welcoming them will define who we are for years to come."

For more info

  • Information about how to make a school and classroom more inviting to students from different cultures, along with lesson plans for English language learners, is available at the Research and Educational Services page on the NYSUT website. Visit www.nysut.org.
  • An SED resource guide on working with refugee children can be found at www.p12.nysed.gov/biling/docs/RefugeeGuideFinal9-10.pdf.
  • NYSUT members Joseph Karb and Andrew Beiter, Springville TA, serve as education directors for "I am Syria," a nonprofit, media-based campaign to educate on the Syrian Conflict. Educator resources are available at www.iamsyria.org.
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