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School leaders urge Trump to uphold protections for 'Dreamers'

Broward County school superintendent Robert Runcie has added his voice to a chorus of educators pleading with the Trump administration to protect young immigrant adults known as "dreamers" by keeping in place the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. [Broward County Public Schools]
Broward County school superintendent Robert Runcie has added his voice to a chorus of educators pleading with the Trump administration to protect young immigrant adults known as "dreamers" by keeping in place the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. [Broward County Public Schools]
Published Sep. 6, 2017

Robert Runcie came to this country at age six from Jamaica, the son of parents with a third grade education.

Today he's superintendent of the Broward County School District, a large system at the forefront of efforts to celebrate the cultural diversity of its students.

On Wednesday, he added his voice to a chorus of educator pleas to protect young immigrant adults known as "Dreamers."

"We believe they've done nothing wrong, that they should have an opportunity go get a high quality education," Runcie said. "This country and our heritage and our history, it's built on immigrants."

Runcie, along with Hanseul Kang of the District of Columbia school district, spoke in a teleconference on behalf of Chiefs for Change, a superintendents' organization that this week urged the Trump administration to maintain protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

An estimated 800,000 young adults are living in limbo as they wait for a comprehensive immigration policy to make its way through Congress.

More immediately, the Trump administration must decide whether to roll back protections that former president Barack Obama instituted, or risk a lawsuit by 10 states. The group of state attorneys general, led by Texas has given Trump a deadline of Sept. 5.

Some of the young immigrants affected are still in high school, the superintendents said. Some — although no one could estimate how many — have jobs in public schools.

And many have younger siblings who are similarly fearful of deportation.

"They have grown up and been educated as Americans," says the statement from the superintendents' group issued this week. "Most came here through no choice of their own, and many know no other country. They are working to make our communities richer and stronger. Pushing them into the shadows would hurt our schools and communities."

After campaigning on promises to protect the nation from the harmful effects of illegal immigration, President Donald Trump signaled soon after he took office that he would not move against participants in DACA.

But all that changed this week, with news reports that top officials from the Department of Homeland Security are reviewing DACA in advance of the Sept. 5 deadline.

Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke and Thomas Homan, the acting head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, were among those who met about DACA on Monday, the Washington Post reported.

DACA, which Trump has called unconstitutional in the past, provides renewable, two-year work permits. It is considered a stopgap arrangement more than a formal law.

Confusion surrounding DACA, and mixed signals from Washington, have created fear among immigrant parents.

Kang described one principal who was asked by a parent if she would become her child's legal guardian in case the parents were deportation.

"This is the level of discussion that is happening in our schools," Kang said. "That's why we're speaking out."

The Broward district has moved to ease fears and provide practical information on immigration matters.

Its website includes an immigrant support plan, and the district offers information to teachers, and pamphlets for parents. "We're in the education business, not deportation," Runcie said, adding that school is the safest place for any child, immigrant or not.

Hard numbers of undocumented immigrant students are hard to come by, as public schools are prohibited by law from inquiring about a student's immigrant status during the enrollment process.

However, 12.7 percent of Broward's students are classified as English language learners, a status that sometimes — but not always — indicates the student is an immigrant. That percentage is identical in Hillsborough.

Information from the Washington Post was used in this report. Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

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