Nearly four years since Arizona passed what was then considered one of the toughest laws dealing with illegal immigration, the state is the first stop of a series of conferences to talk about how schools can help undocumented students.
Following the Tucson Unified School District’s vote this week declaring itself an “immigrant destination district,” Scholarships A-Z hosted the state’s first Dream Conference.
More than 150 educators and school administrators from across the state came to Tucson Friday to talk about the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — which offers temporary relief from deportation to youths brought to the country illegally — what resources are available and how can they support their students who lack legal status.
Scholarships A-Z, a local organization that works to improve access to higher education regardless of immigration status, partnered with the national United We Dream campaign to put together the conferences in cities across the country in preparation for the National Educator’s Coming Out Day.
The national event, to be celebrated April 9, encourages educators to make a public statement by putting up a poster or wearing a T-shirt that says they support undocumented students.
Mark Hanna has worked at Catalina Magnet High School, where he is now a college and career readiness coordinator, for eight years. In that time, he said, he has learned a lot about students who don’t have legal status.
“My mandate as a school counselor is to serve all students,” he said.
Even though undocumented students face the challenge of not qualifying for government financial aid or certain scholarships, Hanna said he has learned how to be more proactive in finding them those opportunities.
He still remembers one of the first times he had to deal with the issue:
About six years ago, he was helping a student with her financial aid application and asked her to take it home to fill out some information.
When she returned to his office, she was distraught, he said. The student had learned she was not in the country legally.
But there are remedies, Hanna said. “These students are the future of our country. Whether they are undocumented or not, it doesn’t matter.”
Iliana Pérez, 26, is a doctoral student at Claremont Graduate University in California.
She came to the United States on a tourist visa when she was 8 years old and her family never left.
But she fully funded her undergraduate degree and currently her graduate studies with private scholarships and found a way to work as an independent contractor.
Her message to educators: Don’t pity undocumented students. Work with them instead of for them, and remember they are much more than their legal status.
“There’s always a way.”