March 2017 Issue
February 28, 2017

Unions to immigrant students, educators: We have your backs

Author: By Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Todd Hathaway, East Aurora Faculty Association member who teaches a foreign policy class, uses the recent immigrant policy shifts to teach students how to unpack and question the rationale behind the policies and discover whether the changes are warranted. Photo by Dennis Stierer.
Caption: Todd Hathaway, East Aurora Faculty Association member who teaches a foreign policy class, uses the recent immigrant policy shifts to teach students how to unpack and question the rationale behind the policies and discover whether the changes are warranted. Photo by Dennis Stierer.

It all changed with a boastful signature.

When President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13769 days after taking office, hundreds of thousands of immigrant students and educators were suddenly thrown into a state of fear and chaos: Banned from entering the country. Detained at airports. Sent back to their countries of birth. Denied access to their education commitments in the U.S. Homes and campuses splashed with swastikas and Muslim-hate graffiti. Professors placed on watch lists. Airports swarmed by protestors.

The ban was targeted at seven Muslim countries and refugees, but fear is widespread among many ethnicities, especially on the deportation issue. This open season on immigrants is still sparking outrage and urgent action to establish sanctuary schools and campuses and stronger protections for human rights. Educators, meanwhile, are using the situation to help students better understand racism and its impact on society.

School health care professionals are counseling students whose families are in the crossfire of an extreme anti-immigrant sentiment.

Todd Hathaway, a member of the East Aurora Faculty Association, teaches an elective foreign policy class that has changed dramatically since the November 2016 election.

"I have enough material to use on a minute-by-minute basis," he said. "The goal of the course is to have students develop their own viewpoint on foreign policy. You can say whatever you want. You just have to support it."

Hathaway had his students "unfold" the travel ban, asking them to analyze what it means, who it affects, and to examine evidentiary basis for the ban.

Using this criteria, he said, even students who are staunch Trump supporters conclude there is no evidence the ban was necessary.

Though the travel ban for immigrants from seven Muslim countries was blocked by a California appeals court ruling, the threat to all immigrant students and educators is far from over. The effects of the travel ban continue to wound.

Hathaway's wife is Muslim; she is Palestinian by descent. Her family has been here for decades. Her grandfather fought in World War II.

"There are people we know, we hang with them, go to weddings with them, go to dinner with them ... and they post things (on social media) that are very insensitive. They will defend the ban and say ‘We have to protect ourselves from THEM.' It's very hurtful," he said.

Serena Kotch, who joined her Cleveland Hill Educators Association colleagues in wearing a hijab on a recent day of action, said the school population includes students whose families have come here from war-ravaged Yemen in the Middle East.

"Students are asking questions about the ban. They are worried about their friends being kicked out of the country or being hurt. There is concern about prejudice," she said.

As Trump vows to initiate new restrictions on immigration, NYSUT and its local union affiliates continue to vigorously support the thousands of undocumented and immigrant students who attend public schools and colleges, and those who teach them.

"As educators, our classrooms are sanctuaries and our students are family. Every day, across this state we teach and model lessons in tolerance, inclusion, respect and understanding to our students, who hail from more than 140 nations and practice many different faiths," said NYSUT President Karen E. Magee. "We urge our members to continue to fight every form of discrimination. This is not who we are as Americans."

That fight played out in prime time when a doctoral student and member of the Professional Staff Congress, representing faculty and staff at the City University of New York, was one of thousands caught in the ban's crosshairs.

Saira Rafiee was traveling back to the U.S. from Iran, where she is a citizen, to resume her work and studies at CUNY. At a stopover at Abu Dhabi, she was forbidden to board the plane to complete her journey. Detained for 18 hours, Rafiee then had to fly back to Tehran.

Her union rallied on her behalf, protesting, holding a press conference, working with CUNY immigration

lawyers; meeting with city officials, the American Federation of Teachers and Congressional representatives. Media coverage came from NBC, CBS, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, and many more outlets.

"Even while the outcome of her own case was uncertain, Saira insisted that she be seen as one among many; she called on us to elevate the cases of people without unions and with less access to public voice," said PSC President Barbara Bowen.

When Rafiee finally landed in Boston, PSC colleagues traveled from New York City to give her a hearty welcome home. Bowen pledged that the higher ed union will "resist the Trump agenda as it attacks students, unions, workers and the principles on which universities are founded. Thought has no borders."

The AFT, one of NYSUT's national affiliates, urges its higher education faculty and staff members to continue to demand that their campuses provide sanctuary "for the country's most vulnerable people — including undocumented immigrants, Muslims, African-Americans and all people of color, and LGBTQ people."

Though some CUNY colleges, such as Bronx Community College and Borough of Manhattan Community College, have been declared sanctuary campuses, PSC is demanding that CUNY become a sanctuary university.

The Union of Clerical, Administrative and Technical Staff at New York University, the NYSUT local union led by Stephen Rechner, successfully urged NYU to declare itself a sanctuary campus. The university's legal clinic has expanded its work representing immigrants facing deportation to include university personnel and students facing detention.

Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions, which represents faculty and staff at the State University of New York, sent a letter to SUNY board chair H. Carl McCall and Chancellor Nancy Zimpher calling on the board to declare SUNY a sanctuary system.

"We encourage the board of trustees to take all action possible to protect and advocate for undocumented students and staff," Kowal wrote.

How we define a sanctuary campus

  • Refuse to give U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement physical access to campus for investigating and detaining students, faculty and campus workers.
  • Prohibit campus security from inquiring about or recording immigration status or enforcing immigration laws.
  • Refuse to voluntarily release academic records, employment records or organization membership lists to the Department of Homeland Security, ICE or other law enforcement agencies that are targeting people based on race, religion, immigration status, political affiliation, or sex or gender identity.
  • Defend academic freedom and defend against blacklisting faculty. Protect civil rights of all the campus community, including from crime.


For more info

AFT has developed a deportation defense guide (in Spanish and English) in collaboration with community partners to support undocumented and refugee students and their families. The guide includes know your rights info for parents and students, tips for preparing an emergency family immigration raid plan, and what actions individuals can take if there is an encounter with an immigration officer. Visit

UUP has set up a Web page with links to legal and immigrant support organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Immigrant Law Center. Visit