Immigrants familierize themselves with the ins-and-outs of the law at Columbia. (Photo: Renée Feltz)
Teach-Ins Turn Immigrant Anxiety Into Action
Advocates are helping undocumented New Yorkers prep for Trump
Issue #
220

On a rainy night in early December, law students, lawyers, advocates and immigrants pack a lecture hall at Columbia Law School for an immigrant-rights teach-in. Next to a sign-up sheet at the door are three urns of coffee. None are decaf.

At the front of the room stands Professor Rose Cuison Villazor, a seasoned legal advocate for immigrants and the first of many speakers from university and ­community-based legal services agencies.

“Let me begin by talking about president-elect Donald Trump,” she says, quieting everyone but a few interpreters.

The next three hours are a crash course on who Trump’s administration will likely target first for deportation, and how to protect and support their rights.

Similar gatherings have drawn crowds throughout New York City, where more than a third of residents are foreign-born. The week before, nearly 700 people attended a similar event at New York University School of Law.

“Right now there is a lot of fear,” says Alina Das, codirector of NYU Law School's Immigrant Rights Clinic. “Our primary focus is educate those who will be directly affected, and turn their anxiety into action.”

•   •   •

On the same rainy night, another teach-in at the Community Church of New York in midtown Manhattan attracts mostly immigrant students, couples, and families, who sit in scattered clumps among the pews. A young Latina hands out cards on which they can write legal questions and pass them back to be answered from the pulpit/podium, allowing them to remain anonymous.

Tania Mattos, a Bolivian immigrant and education and outreach coordinator for the immigrant legal-­services group UnLocal, notes that anyone with questions about their immigration status can schedule a free legal consultation with the city’s Action NYC program. Then she reads the first card: “If Trump revokes DACA, when will deportations begin?”

President Barack Obama’s executive order known as DACA, or Deferred Adjudication for Childhood Arrivals, has given work permits and a temporary reprieve from deportation to nearly 750,000 young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.  

On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to repeal DACA in his first 100 days. It is unclear whether ending the program would immediately revoke recipients’ legal status, or just prevent them from renewing it when it expires. Those who have not yet submitted applications are now encouraged to hold on to them in order to avoid submitting their name and address to the federal government, as well as paying a $465 fee to do so.

Many colleges say they will bar immigration agents from tracking down undocumented students on campus without a warrant, and will refuse to turn over their information without a court-ordered subpoena. Columbia University’s provost said the school may expand financial aid for those who lose their DACA status and can no longer legally work.

Later, Mattos reads another card that asked how she stayed positive. “I spent most of my life without DACA,” she responds. “I know I will survive, and I have faith in community organizing.”

•   •   •

Back at the law school teach-in, two participants volunteer for a role-playing exercise in which “Anna,” an undocumented immigrant, arrives in her apartment to discover she has been robbed, then debates with her friend whether to report it.

“You should feel safe reporting a crime in New York City,” advises Evelyn Garcia, a neighborhood organizer with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

She clicks to the next slide in her PowerPoint presentation and reads Executive Order 41 on Confidentiality, which instructs city workers — other than law-enforcement officers — not to disclose a person’s immigration status unless they have been authorized to do so by that person, they are required by law to do so, the information is needed to determine eligibility for a public benefit or the person is suspected of illegal activity.

When pressed, Garcia explains that even if police are not covered by the order, the New York Police Department says it does not report immigrants to federal authorities.

“New York is basically a sanctuary city,” someone comments, while others remain skeptical.

Since Trump’s election, Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed not to cooperate with federal agents seeking data gathered from residents who are immigrants. This data includes names and addresses collected from those issued a municipal ID card. 

•   •   •

At any teach-in now, as well as during the Obama administration, when deportations reached a record high, one group is always identified as the most likely to be deported: immigrants with criminal records, even if the offenses are decades old. While Trump estimates there are 2-3 million such people, the Migration Policy Institute counts about 820,000.

In New York City, many immigrants of color have been targeted by the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk and broken windows policies. They were arrested for minor offenses and advised to plead guilty, with damning consequences.

Conor Gleason, an immigration attorney with the Bronx Defenders, observes another role-playing exercise in which “Bob” has been a lawful permanent resident for many years. At age 20 he pled guilty to a crime, but did not serve time in jail. Concerned about what Trump will do, he is considering applying for citizenship.

“People should not apply for naturalization if they have a past offense,” Gleason advises, explaining that the citizenship-services arm of the Department of Homeland Security could turn over his information to the “scary” part that handles enforcement and removal.

•   •   •

As the teach-in at the church winds down, the mood is both somber and defiant, as UnLocal executive director Michele Lampach draws attention to the bigger picture.

“Immigration has a big impact on people’s lives,” she says, “but it can’t control everything.”

She advises people who may face deportation to prepare by creating a safety plan: Gather all of your immigration-related documents, financial and medical records, and an emergency contact list. If you are a parent, make arrangements for who will care for your children. DACA recipients who may lose their work permit are encouraged to make financial plans.

Both gatherings also feature advice on how to respond when police or federal agents come to your home. You have the right to refuse them entry without a warrant signed by a judge, with the correct address — including the apartment number. Ask them to slide the warrant under your door. If you are detained, you have the right to remain silent and can respond in several ways, such as, “I want to use my right to remain silent” or “I want to speak to a lawyer.”   

Legal advocates say these workshops will be replicated and adjusted as Trump’s immigration-enforcement policies take shape, so that people have accurate information and resources.

“We are not hopeful about what is to come,” Lampach admits, “We want to be ready in case the worst-case scenario happens.”

A video of the NYU teach-in is available HERE.