Dreamers under attack

Ira Fader
General Counsel
September 7, 2017

Greetings to all after a politically fraught summer. Now that we’re at the beginning of the school year, I had intended to discuss the legal issues that the MTA and the Division of Legal Services can foresee this year. But once again, events out of Washington, D.C., overtake such intentions.

A measure of how central public education is to American life is the degree to which major political and legal issues play out in our educational communities. Privatization of public services? Check. The attack on labor unions? Check. The inequality of wealth distribution and the flow of money to the top 1 percent? Check. The horrifying events in Charlottesville, the grinding opioid crisis, the poverty-level minimum wage? Check, check, check.

To a significant degree, the circumstances of our broader political culture walk right through the doors of our schools and colleges every day, embedded in the minds and bodies of the students whom MTA members teach. The large issues of the day directly affect the health and welfare of students and their families — and these family circumstances directly affect the educational health of the school district and the community. Generally, a student whose family has good family health care coverage is a student who comes to school ready to learn. A student whose community has invested in early childhood education, or whose family could afford to pay for it, is a student who will perform better in school, whether on standardized tests or more meaningful measures of growth.

Conversely, a student who fears her parents will be deported or who fears he will lose his own status as a “Dreamer” — i.e., an undocumented individual who arrived in the United States as a child — is a student under attack by our own public policies and laws.

This week, the Trump administration rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — or DACA — program. Many of the 800,000 individuals at risk of losing their legal status to remain in this country are students and educators. It is estimated that there are upwards of 8,000 DACA recipients in Massachusetts.

Under the DACA program, an undocumented individual who was brought here by his or her parents as a child can acquire legal residency and work authorization for renewable two-year periods. Education is at the heart of the program: individuals must be in school currently or have pursued education through high school or a GED program.

MTA members know as well as anyone that the “Dreamers” are (or have been) our students. MTA members teach them, know their families and understand their stories. It is possible, too, that some are our colleagues within the NEA family.

The NEA has created a valuable webpage on the issue: www.NEAedJustice.org/daca-resources.

The federal program is officially winding down now. Go here for more information. The Department of Homeland Security offers the not-reassuring advice that “no person should lose benefits under [DACA] prior to March 5, 2018 …”

Less than a month after that date, the 2017-18 MCAS season will be fully underway. Whether Congress has the fortitude or courage to act by that time is anybody’s guess. In the meantime, any DACA recipient who is a student in Massachusetts this school year might be thinking about issues that are not part of the curriculum and won’t be tested on the MCAS.

Mental health professionals are already talking about how the emotional and psychological well-being of DACA recipients is being affected by the fear and uncertainty caused by President Donald Trump’s announcement. Likewise, educators are already very aware of the many ways that rising stress about the future will be hurting our DACA students in school. And so, once again, an ideological clash in our broader body politic comes right inside the school doors like a disruptive bully.

And once again, educators will be “first responders” to the needs of their students.

We have many battles ahead of us as educators and as MTA members. The U.S. Supreme Court may strip away the MTA’s right to collect a fair-share fee from individuals we must represent but who nonetheless refuse to join as members. The state Legislature is looking at a bill that would create “empowerment zones” for certain school districts, stripping away collective bargaining rights. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will be hearing oral argument in October about the constitutionality of the charter school cap. Health insurance benefits may once again be targeted this year. And we will be fighting vigorously for a ballot question that would place an additional income tax on millionaires in order to support public education and transportation.

But with all of this going on, we won’t lose sight of the students in Massachusetts and throughout the nation who are not sleeping well while they wait and watch for the country they entered as children to do the right thing.

Ira Fader is the general counsel of the MTA.