Universities pledge to protect undocumented students
NEIU/Angelina Pedroso Center for Diversity and Intercultural Affairs

CHICAGO – A federal law that protects college students’ privacy may be the first line of defense for undocumented students and universities alarmed by the Trump administration’s immigration crack down and mass deportation threats, according to university officials. The 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prohibits the sharing of educational information, including immigration status, with any outside party, unless compelled by a court order, warrant or subpoena.

However, the institution is allowed to share directory information, such as name and address of the student, unless the student has signed a special request form to withhold their directory information. An institution’s registrar and admission office has such a form available, but the student has to take the initiative to fill it out and hand it in.

Immigrant communities and civil rights organizations responded with alarm to the two Feb. 20 Homeland Security memos that outlined harsher and broader immigration enforcement policies sought by President Donald Trump. On college campuses across the nation, since Trump’s election, students sought reassurances from university officials that the administrations would work to protect those who are undocumented from being targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The University of Michigan and the University of California system announced it would protect the privacy of their students regarding immigration status. Students at Florida State University voted “yes” on a referendum to make FSU a sanctuary campus. The federal FERPA law gives these and other universities the legal authority to take such a stance.

Universities also announced that campus police would not enter into any joint agreement with ICE, nor would they stop, detain or arrest students solely on the basis of immigration status.

After the Trump administration promised to withhold federal funds from so-called sanctuary cities, campuses seemed to avoid that designation for fear of losing funds, but at the same time standing by their policies that protect all students regardless of immigration status. The FERPA law aids any university in its effort to provide undocumented students with educational opportunity while the political fight on mass deportations unfolds.

In Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University sponsored a panel Feb. 23 on what does it mean to be a sanctuary.

“Sanctuary is not some magical place but a series of relationships,” said the Rev. Walter Coleman of Centro Sin Fronteras. “ICE can come on campus. They can come into a church,” he said at the NEIU panel. “Sanctuary is about organizing.”

Coleman and Pastor Emma Lozano provided sanctuary for Elvira Arellano, an undocumented worker who was swept up in a post-9/11 raid at O’Hare Airport in 2006. Arellano who has a U.S. citizen son became a symbol for the immigrant rights movement but was eventually deported to Mexico in 2007.

Coleman urged students to organize and to recognize the importance of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s defense of Chicago as a Sanctuary City. Coleman said Emanuel was the biggest obstacle to immigration reform in Congress right after 9/11, and as President Obama’s chief of staff, he was against passing a reform bill in the first 100 days.

“This is a big change for him,” Coleman said.

The city’s Office of New Americans offers many resources for immigrants, including for undocumented students: https://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/mayor/supp_info/office-of-new-americans/college-access-for-undocumented-students.html. In a press statement last month, the mayor urged Chicagoans to get involved in organizations supporting immigrants and refugees.

A representative from the office said the city has allocated $1.7 million for legal resources, including sponsoring “Know Your Rights” workshops and DACA sign up. DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) provides temporary work permits and deportation relief for undocumented young people who meet certain requirements.

Coleman urged students to continue to sign up for DACA and become DACA navigators. “You don’t have to pay $4,000 to a lawyer. You can get trained to sign people up,” he said.

Trump has not repealed the Obama administration DACA plan, which reportedly has more than 750,000 young people registered. But after a DACA registrant was swept up in an ICE raid and arrested, fear that Trump would use the program to target the undocumented increased.

Coleman said it would provide more protection to be in the program than out of it. “The first thing you want to do is to be with almost a million others in the same situation.”

NEIU offers many resources for undocumented students and has also said it would stand by them. Registrar Dan Weber explained the FERPA law and that it takes precedent over any Freedom of Information Act filings. He also told students they could fill out the form to withhold their names and addresses from any outside requests.

“Can an email be sent out to students with this information,” one student asked?

The university’s attorney said her office prioritizes protecting NEIU students to the fullest extent possible and works closely with the registrar to protect privacy. NEIU has a long history of serving undocumented students. More resources are available on the NEIU website.

The American Federation of Teachers announced it would urge its members to do everything possible to protect students in K-12 and on campuses. The union has many resources available for teachers, students and families on its website: http://www.aft.org/our-community/immigration

A U.S. Department of Education spokesman said the department had no comment at this time as to how the president’s immigration orders would affect federal funding for schools resisting the new policies.


Teresa Albano
Teresa Albano

Teresa Albano was the first woman editor-in-chief of People’s World, 2003-2010, leading the transition from weekly print to daily online publishing and establishing PW’s social media presence. Albano had been a staff writer for People’s World covering political, labor, and social justice issues for more than 25 years. She traveled throughout the U.S. and abroad, including India, Cuba, Angola, Italy, and Paris to cover the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference. An award-winning journalist, Albano has been honored for her writing by the International Labor Communications Association, National Federation of Press Women, and Illinois Woman Press Association.