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High School Teachers Are Key Resource for DREAMers

Educators can direct students to reliable information, but should refrain from giving legal advice.

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LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 15: Pedro Leon Martinez (L) receives help from volunteer Maria Peralta in filing up his application for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program at Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles on August 15, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. Under a new program established by the Obama administration undocumented youth who qualify for the program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, can file applications from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website to avoid deportation and obtain the right to work.
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 15: Pedro Leon Martinez (L) receives help from volunteer Maria Peralta in filing up his application for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program at Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles on August 15, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. Under a new program established by the Obama administration undocumented youth who qualify for the program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, can file applications from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website to avoid deportation and obtain the right to work.

An estimated 700,000 undocumented students, including 150,000 currently enrolled in high school, can now apply for deferred action under President Obama's executive order. As these students head back to school, teachers and administrators will be a key resource for teens seeking temporary protection from deportation.

"Teachers are in a great position to help, and in a lot of ways even in an better position than some of our organizations," says Mony Ruiz-Velasco, legal director for the National Immigrant Justice Center, an advocacy group providing access to legal services for immigrants. "They have the trust of their students, and so really being informed and serving as a resource for the students is really going to be invaluable."

Being on the front line gives educators the opportunity to help students find information on eligibility requirements and track down advocacy groups providing assistance with the application process.

[Read how state DREAM Acts may help deter dropouts.]

Teachers can walk students through the NIJC's eligibility tool, which asks questions to determine basic eligibility, and visit the organization's website for links to credible legal resources, she says, adding that NIJC will soon post dates for online Q&A sessions for anyone seeking more information on deferred action.

"There are a lot of legal nuances around any kind of legal proceeding, and this is a legal process," Ruiz-Velasco says. "The teacher's role and the school's role is to provide access to resources … rather than trying to help [them] determine eligibility."

Educators should also choose their words carefully when talking with students about deferred action, says Lily Eskelsen, vice president of the National Education Association.

"We're telling [teachers] to use words like 'might' and 'you want to look into,'" she says. "The worst thing in the world for us to do is to somehow have a family believe that they have been promised something like a path to citizenship."

The NEA is partnering with United We Dream, a youth-run advocacy group, to hold application clinics at schools and community colleges. The association is also working to curate information on funding resources for students who can't afford the $465 application fee. Students must meet a strict set of criteria to be eligible for deferred action, which protects them from deportation but does not give them any legal status.

[Find out what scholarships are available for immigrants.]

Rather than approaching students they think would benefit from deferred action, teachers should use classroom discussions on politics and current events to talk with their students about the policy change, and let students know who they can go to for more information, Eskelsen says. District officials and parent-teacher organizations can also send out general information in school mailers, she adds.

"We have absolutely no right to ask a student, 'By the way, are you here legally?'" Eskelsen says. "Simply because you have a student with immigrant parents, it would be totally inappropriate to assume a family needs this information."