Photo courtesy of Immigrants Rising
Student leaders and educators from California high schools discuss how to better support undocumented students at an event in 2019.

Hazel Piñon, an immigrant who moved to the Bay Area from the Philippines as a child, was 20 when she found out she may have qualified for a visa as a teenager that would have given her a path to permanent U.S. residency. By the time she found out, it was too late to apply.

Schools don’t track the immigration status of students, but an estimated 145,000 students ages 3-17 enrolled in California’s schools are undocumented, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Some advocates now recommend schools to partner with legal aid organizations to provide consultations, since they are trusted places and sources of information for many immigrant families. Many of these students, they say, could benefit from meeting with attorneys or legal aid organizations before they turn 18 to help them identify options for legal residency for which they might be eligible.

Piñon came to the San Francisco Bay Area on a tourist visa when she was 11 to join her mother, who was already here. When her visa expired, Piñon stayed. She does not qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) because she came to the U.S. after the 2007 deadline for arrival.

When Piñon was 15, she witnessed her stepfather physically abuse her mother.

“I didn’t want to call the police because, in my mind, I was going to get deported,” Piñon said.

Five years later, Piñon found out that if she or her mother had reported the abuse to the police, they might have qualified for a U-visa, available to victims of certain crimes, such as domestic violence, if they cooperate with law enforcement.

“I wish there had been some sort of support at the high school I attended, where they advocated for undocumented student’s rights, because youth who are scared of deportation will be less likely to tell anyone about their circumstances unless they know that whoever will support them is to be trusted,” Piñon said.

Under current immigration law, there are not many options for permanent legal residency for people who are already in the country without immigration papers. While some undocumented youth qualify for DACA, that is a temporary permit that offers no path to permanent residency or citizenship.

Though the options are limited, advocates say some young immigrants and their families are eligible for visas that can lead to permanent residency, but miss their chance to apply.

Immigration law is complicated and without meeting with an attorney, it can be very difficult to know all of one’s options. Depending on the type of visa, applicants often must apply before a certain time period has passed or before they turn a certain age. For example, if a minor has been abandoned, abused or neglected by a parent, they may be eligible to apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, but they must apply before they turn 21 in California. Victims of domestic violence perpetrated by a permanent resident or citizen may be eligible to apply for a visa under the Violence Against Women Act, but they must apply before they turn 25 if applying for themselves. If a parent is able to get permanent residency, they may apply for their children to get it, as well, before the children turn 21.

“I wish there had been some sort of support at the high school I attended, where they advocated for undocumented student’s rights, because youth who are scared of deportation will be less likely to tell anyone about their circumstances unless they know that whoever will support them is to be trusted,” said Hazel Piñon, an immigrant student.

In addition, once a person turns 18, if they spend more than six months in the U.S. without immigration documentation, they may be barred from the U.S. for several years when trying to apply for residency, or have to ask for a waiver, which is not guaranteed.

Immigrants Rising is one of the organizations that recommends legal service providers engage with schools and other organizations that work with young immigrants to provide consultations for more high school students and help them apply for legal residency options. The organization provides free online legal screenings for undocumented immigrants, as well as grants and fellowships for achieving educational and career goals. The recommendation for more legal aid for high school students is based on an analysis of the organization’s online legal screenings conducted over the last decade for approximately 3,000 undocumented immigrants.

Jesús Flores Rodríguez, who coordinates legal services for Immigrants Rising, said he hears from people like Piñon — who could have been eligible for some kind of visa, but found out too late — at least two or three times a week.

“It’s just so heartbreaking knowing that they could have been eligible for this option, but the only thing that is stopping them is the age or not knowing about this earlier,” Flores Rodríguez said.

Flores Rodríguez said when he does presentations for students about immigration law, he loves seeing a “spark in people’s eyes” when they realize they may have other options.

“I grew up just having the sense that I was just stuck. As an undocumented person, you’re constantly being thrown these restrictions about who you are and how you navigate life in general,” Flores Rodríguez said. “I think a lot of people think that immigration status is something that is stagnant and it doesn’t move.”

The benefits of legal screenings go beyond immigration status, advocates say.

“Legal screenings are key on many levels — student motivation, graduation rates, continuing education, being able to obtain employment,” said Amie Scully, founder and CEO of the nonprofit organization, Students Without Limits, that partners with schools in the San Diego area to help undocumented students get legal services and go to college.

Under California law, all public schools must provide equal rights and opportunities to all students, regardless of immigration status, refrain from collecting unnecessary immigration status information from students, and adopt practices to ensure students are not bullied because of their immigration status. In addition, many school districts have adopted “safe haven” or “sanctuary” policies, to reassure parents and students that everyone is welcome on school sites, regardless of immigration status.

Some school districts already partner with legal aid organizations to provide legal consultations and services to immigrant students and families, as suggested by Immigrants Rising.

For example, Oakland Unified connects newly arrived immigrants and young people who crossed the border alone to legal and mental health services. The Los Angeles Unified School District partnered with the UCLA School of Law to set up an immigration law clinic to serve immigrant students and families. Fresno Unified set up a Dream Resource Centerthat provides legal consultations for immigrant families. A group of teachers and parents based in Oakland fundraises for legal aid for families facing deportation.

“I grew up just having the sense that I was just stuck. As an undocumented person, you’re constantly being thrown these restrictions about who you are and how you navigate life in general,” said Jesús Flores Rodríguez, who coordinates legal services for Immigrants Rising.

Kateri Dodds Simpson, a teacher and counselor at Life Academy of Health and Bioscience, a middle and high school in Oakland Unified, said it makes sense for schools to connect undocumented students to legal or mental health services. She works with many students who are undocumented themselves or have family members who are undocumented, and she has helped organize events where legal aid organizations come to the school to help families and students determine if they are eligible for DACA or something more permanent.

“We’re uniquely positioned to connect families to these kinds of resources, for families that might not otherwise be able to seek them out or have the bandwidth to seek them out on their own,” Dodds Simpson said. “It makes kids more aware of what’s available for them. Because otherwise you get into those situations where a kid finds out late, and then they’re ashamed to talk about it.” She said having information available at school helps students and families feel safe to talk about their situations, which also helps alleviate their stress and anxiety.

Dodds Simpson has heard many times of students or parents who were victims of a crime in the past and had been afraid to talk to the police.

“And that U-visa status just passed them by because they just didn’t know. That’s the one I’ve experienced most commonly,” Dodds Simpson said.

Lucero García, a social work counselor at El Cerrito High School in West Contra Costa Unified, works with many students who are recent immigrants. Families or students sometimes ask García legal questions because they trust her, and she has referred them to attorneys or legal aid organizations. She said having someone available at a school site to offer legal consultations would be beneficial because students and families often don’t have enough money to pay for a consultation with an immigration attorney, and the nonprofit organizations that offer free legal help are often overwhelmed with clients.

“Even to get an appointment is really hard for families,” García said.

Some high schools partner with legal organizations or immigrant rights organizations like Immigrants Rising, which provides workshops for high school teachers and counselors on supporting undocumented students who want to attend college or build a career. The organization has provided the workshops across California, from Huntington Park in Los Angeles County to Pittsburg in Contra Costa County. The organization also places college students and other young immigrants as fellows in high schools to help undocumented students connect to legal aid and to resources that can help them attend college or build a career.

Hazel Piñon was one of those fellows last year. Now studying sociology at a community college and applying to transfer to a UC campus in the fall, she was placed at two high schools in Contra Costa County – Pittsburg High School and John Swett High School. She spoke to different classes and met individually with students to give them resources with information about their options for attending college, starting their own businesses, or life after high school. She said some students told her just talking with someone else who had gone through the same thing helped.

“I wanted to be that support to other students that I didn’t personally have when I was a high school student,” Piñon said.

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