By Hannah Wiley, Medill, Immigrant Connect

When Anna* heard the announcement from Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Sept. 5 that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) would be shut down, she panicked. Her friends who are DACA recipients talked about what the change could mean, and how they suddenly felt worried about possible deportation. She thought about how much more difficult it would be for her.

“I was very scared, because first of all, I don’t have DACA,” Anna said. “I told myself, if this is going to be hard for them, I can’t imagine how hard it is going to be for me.”

“It wasn’t the kind of fear where you feel like the monster is under your bed. It was worse. The monster was in front of me,” she said.

Although scared, Anna said she never felt alone, and is confident she never will. Her Southwest Side high school, Catalyst Maria Charter School, has gone to extreme lengths to foster an inclusive environment for undocumented students and to send a strong message that teachers and administrators are fully prepared to shelter them from any threat to their safety because of their citizenship status.

“I feel free in school. I feel that the school is my house and they love me and will protect me,” Anna said.

A poster showing solidarity with Catalyst’s undocumented students hangs in the hallways of the school. [Photo credit: Carly Comiskey]

School administrators at Catalyst Maria, like Richard Tolisano and Sasha Fawaz, provide educational opportunities for the staff and faculty within their building on ways to navigate a code-red situation.

One initiative the school started is to organize an opportunity for faculty, students and families to undergo professional developments and workshop seminars to understand their rights and to learn procedures when ICE officials or other deportation agents show up.

The realization that both students and the entire K-12 faculty needed such learning opportunities came while Fawaz, Catalyst Maria’s Director of Post-Secondary Success, was walking past a classroom on a day shortly after the announcement to end DACA. She overheard a student asking a teacher about what would happen next. She could sense the fear in the classroom. The teacher lacked answers for the student, and Fawaz said she felt this furthered an atmosphere of confusion.

She pushed for a professional development day that would solely on educating all staff members in the entire building on the rights of their undocumented students and families.

“Let’s give them all the correct information so that they’re prepared in case a student does have a question,” she said.

Tolisano said the professional development workshop was an important chance to send a caring message to the school’s undocumented community.

“We are trying to let them know that there are people who believe in, and will fight for, you and get you what you deserve even though we might not know what will happen yet,” said Tolisano, who is Director of Math, Science and Project Lead the Way—a STEM program—at Catalyst Maria.

Aiding in a school’s process of implementing safety procedures for undocumented students, Imelda Salazar of the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) partnered with Catalyst Maria to facilitate the workshop.

“It’s all about power,” said Salazar. “For students, families, teachers, to realize their ability to act, that’s how we define power.”

Salazar also said it’s important for the adults in these students’ lives to acknowledge the teenagers’ emotional needs and to support them in their processing of the political climate.

“What they need is to be teenagers. The space for mental health, and the space for discovering who they are and to share with other teenagers,” she said.

Along with Catalyst Maria, CPS has demonstrated other friendly attempts to assuage tensions surrounding such a sensitive time for the district, as Chicago is home to more than 180,000 undocumented individuals.

Calling Chicago a “Trump-Free Zone,”  Mayor Rahm Emanuel attempted to calm anxieties after the announcement to end the DACA program released a wave of worry among Chicago immigrant communities.

“To all the Dreamers that are here in this room and in the city of Chicago: You are welcome in the city of Chicago. This is your home. And you have nothing to worry about,” Emanuel said in September, on the first day of school for CPS students.

Echoing the mayor’s sentiments, CPS and City Colleges of Chicago released a joint statement via a blog post on Sept. 8.

“ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is not permitted to access our public education facilities or personnel except in rare instances such as when a warrant is presented or circumstances in which there is an imminent risk of violence or physical harm,” the post said.

CPS won’t say how many undocumented students they have enrolled in their schools, and it’s against policy for school officials to ask about the legal status of students and families. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974, all records on a student are legally protected as private. Usually, school counselors and advisers start to get an idea about documentation around a student’s junior year, when he or she starts the college application process. In order to qualify for federal financial aid to attend college, a student needs a social security number, something undocumented students don’t have.

In the 1981 case of Plyler v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that it is unconstitutional under 14th Amendment protections for a public-school district to deny enrollment to a student because of citizenship status. Twenty-six years later, the Trump administration’s policies threaten the promise of a school safety zone, and the Court’s ruling has become even more important.

While Chicago’s more immigrant-welcoming institutions are at work to build a theoretical wall of protection for children against ICE infiltration and deportation forces, there are heightened security risks that Emanuel himself and other government officials, administrators and teachers can’t promise to protect students from.

That’s how Catalyst Maria determined that the individual power of a school and its collective faculty effort is critically important, and assumed responsibility for keeping its building a place of sanctuary.

Career Counselor Carly Comiskey keeps a poster taped to her desk, declaring her support of Catalyst’s undocumented students. Photo credit: Carly Comiskey]

By creating procedures and structures that secure Catalyst Maria as a safe space, students like Anna said they feel the support. She shared stories of interacting with her homeroom teacher who often reminds her that he’s there as a support system, or of the text messages she receives on the school’s communication systems that pass along college scholarship information for undocumented students. Carly Comiskey, the school’s college counselor, has a sign on her desk that reads, “I support Catalyst’s Undocumented Students.” It’s not uncommon for students to pop into her office to ask for help applying for financial aid or finding schools that accept undocumented students.

Last year, Anna also joined the Dreamers club, a student-led organization composed of undocumented students who get together to talk about their mutual struggles and triumphs. And Anna mentioned that one of her senior classmates who is not undocumented wanted to support her peers, so she wrote a letter to Senator Dick Durbin (D-Il.), calling for his action in protecting Chicago’s undocumented students. Durbin is scheduled to meet with students and faculty in the coming weeks before the holidays.

“I am not alone, and I don’t want to be alone. I have to be involved with my school, with my friends, with the other Dreamers. I want to motivate them not to hide,” Anna said. “They can be scared, because I’m scared. But not to hide, to show them that we still have to be together no matter what.”

Moving forward, conflicting messages from the federal and local governments, and from advisers and lawyers, have muddied the waters. When political statements get difficult to decode, schools are stepping up to reclaim power in protecting their students. Whether that be from an ICE official wanting into the school, or from the Justice Department to halt federal funding, or threats against a Dreamer’s status in the classroom, the important point is that these schools, these teachers, these families, these students, are prepped to combat any danger to their existence, as a collective, as a community.