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Vanessa Luna walking through the streets of New York.

Help is Here to Know and Protect the Rights of Immigrant Students

Many organizations connect immigrants to citizenship resources and legal aid. But ImmSchools is targeting support to where it’s sorely needed: in K-12 schools.

October 1, 2019

Susan Brenna

Susan Brenna

In the dim basement cafeteria of a Bronx elementary school, New York 2019 corps members were halfway through a long day of summer institute training when a woman in a crisp navy sheath dress walked to the front of the room.

She dropped a stuffed tote bag on a table, lit up her presentation on a big screen, and proceeded to walk corps members through two packed hours of highly relevant advice for the 2019-20 school year.

The woman was Vanessa Luna (L.A. ’14). She was there to educate corps members on the rights and uncertain futures of the immigrant students and families they can expect to meet in their classrooms this year. Luna was speaking on behalf of ImmSchools, the nonprofit organization she co-founded 18 months ago.

ImmSchools was one of three recipients of Teach For America’s Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Social Innovation Award for 2019. (They include Cow Tipping Press founder and South Dakota alum Bryan Boyce.)

In partnership with schools and school districts in Texas and New York, ImmSchools team members lead information sessions for teachers, students, and families. They share detailed, up-to-date information about students’ rights in and out of school, targeting instructional advice to teachers because they have “found the information stops at the principal level in most schools,” Luna says.

At the summer institute session, Luna advised corps members to get full contact information for every student and ensure each has a preparedness plan: Who will you call if a parent is detained?

“Continuously work with your communities,” she advised. “Who can provide legal services right away? Which are the churches that provide sanctuary?”

ImmSchools encourages teachers to hang welcoming posters (available on its website) that mark school as a safe place. “Many of the resources go untapped at school because families are afraid to ask,” says Viridiana Carrizales. (One of the founders of ImmSchools, Carrizales previously led Teach For America’s effort to recruit DACAmented teachers.)

ImmSchools also pushes out detailed resources through social media. As school came back into session, the organization ran a social media campaign giving educators five steps they can take on day one to support immigrant and mixed-status families all year. 

Luna led an information-packed summer training session in the Bronx with first-year corps members. Meron Menghistab

One Day: What’s the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?

Vanessa Luna: Approximately 3.9 million K-12 students are undocumented or have at least one parent who is undocumented. While our education system is the only institution where undocumented students are legally protected under federal law, less than 1% of school districts have passed and are implementing immigrant-friendly policies and inclusive practices.

So we can say everyone is welcome in school, but we need to provide concrete practices to back that up. Instead, we’ve got schools’ inaction paired with educators who are uninformed and unprepared.

Viridiana Carrizales: More than 1 in 10 Texas students are undocumented or have a parent who is undocumented, and yet I’m working with schools that are in true denial or don’t want to see this as an issue that’s impacting them.

How are you unique?

Vanessa Luna: We’re the only organization that’s doing work exclusively around education equity and immigration justice in the K-12 system. National and local organizations have huge initiatives around higher education access, citizenship, legal aid. But there’s no one else creating easily adaptable resources for educators and immigrant families. You need those resources, and that’s something I know first-hand from being a teacher who never had that information.

We’re also an immigrant-led organization, co-founded by two leaders who were directly impacted by the issue as former undocumented students. The fact that we are not outsiders is an incredible asset not only to react to unjust systems, but to have conversations with students and families when the news is daunting and traumatizing for someone like me who has family members who are impacted.

I had to question myself as an entrepreneur, because the inequities we experienced growing up are also true in this space. But our team has come to understand that the power of our stories is in our own resilience. We wake up every day and smile and keep going despite the anxiety, because that’s what our families deserve. We not only deserve to be at the table, we are making our own table.


Featured image: ImmSchools’ Vanessa Luna trains teachers, students, and families across New York on immigrant students’ rights and immigrant-friendly school policies.

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