Praveena Somasundaram | 14th May 2021
As the senior class at Skyline High School in Dallas looked forward to a trip to Europe, Lorena Tule-Romain looked for an excuse to tell her friends about why she wasn’t going.
The real reason was because Tule-Romain was an undocumented student.
“There’s no way I would’ve been able to travel outside of the country with my immigration status,” she said.
Tule-Romain also couldn’t get a driver’s license or apply for federal financial aid during the college application process like her peers could. She spent much of her senior year wondering where she would be after graduation.
Now, over a decade later, she is the chief strategy officer of ImmSchools, a nonprofit that aims to make schools a safe and welcoming space for undocumented students and families. ImmSchools also provides financial assistance for families and training resources for educators. Tule-Romain co-founded the organization in 2017 with Viridiana Carrizales and Vanessa Luna, who were both formerly undocumented.
ImmSchools’ work began as uncertainty surrounding immigration and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program rose in the U.S. because former President Donald Trump’s administration attempted to restrict and terminate the program.
By working with schools and advocating for policy change, Tule-Romain hopes ImmSchools can provide undocumented students and families with support in the K-12 education system — a support she didn’t have growing up.
‘Undocumented students are part of the schools’
When she was 9, Tule-Romain immigrated with her parents from Mexico. Her family lived in Texas, which was the first state to allow undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition in 2001.
Even before considering college admission, undocumented students face barriers throughout K-12 education, including financial and language barriers. According to Pew Research Center data, about 725,000 K-12 students were undocumented in 2014. Another 3.2 million students had at least one parent who was undocumented.
Of 3,500 educators from across the country surveyed by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, 90% of administrators and 78% of teachers reported observing behavioral or emotional problems with students that seemed related to concerns about immigration enforcement.
Yet, less than 1% of schools have adopted immigrant-friendly policies, according to the National Education Association (NEA).
An example of one such policy schools can adopt is the NEA’s “safe zone” resolution. This resolution includes language that reassures students of their right to education.
“It’s just policy that acknowledges that undocumented students are part of the schools and that they’re a support for those students,” Tule-Romain said.
ImmSchools works with schools to advocate for these policies and trains educators on how to support students and families. Through ImmSchools’ training, educators can also learn how to create an inclusive classroom environment for undocumented students and find scholarships that don’t require citizen or residency status.
Undocumented families learn about these resources as well through ImmSchools’ empowerment workshops. Parents and children learn about higher education options and navigating encounters with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Patricia Gándara, a research professor of education and co-director of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, said ImmSchools plays a role in addressing one of the difficulties undocumented families face — completing education safely.
“People lose their jobs, families go into hiding, children leave the schools, so there needs to be a whole web of services,” Gándara said. “People doing ImmSchools are one piece of that web.”
Gándara’s own work researching the impact of immigration on children has shown her the importance of addressing the classroom space.
“To the extent that it affects the children, it affects their schools because they don’t show up for school when there are rumors in the community about something happening or when they feel frightened,” she said.
As of March 2021, over 5,000 educators and school staff have received training from ImmSchools and 3,200 immigrant students and families have participated in the organization’s programming.
Sixteen-year-old Melanie Rojas’s family is one of them. Her parents immigrated from Mexico in the early 2000s.
After her mother told her about ImmSchools’ work, Rojas knew she wanted to be a part of it and started volunteering for the organization.
“Growing up with my parents, I know they need help with a lot of things mostly because of the language barrier,” Rojas said. “I feel like their program has really helped those families and it’s encouraged me more to do something in the future that will help that specific group as well.”
Rojas lives with her family in Dallas. ImmSchools primarily operates in Texas and New York. These two states were chosen because nearly 25% of undocumented families in the U.S. live in them, according to ImmSchools’ 2020 impact report.
“Because of the diversity of unmet needs present in these states, we are learning about the overall effectiveness of our programs and how the potency of our work is impacted by the pre-existing conditions of a region,” the report states.
Educational barriers, as Gándara said, are one part of a larger web of issues undocumented students and families face, including financial instability, language barriers and transportation limitations, meaning interventions that target these areas are needed in addition to education-focused approaches.
Organizations like ImmSchools exist across the U.S. Some, such as ImmSchools, are concentrated in states like Texas that have larger populations of undocumented families. Others have a national focus, such as the organization United We Dream, which has local groups across 28 different states. United We Dream also has toolkits for educators teaching undocumented students, as well as resources focused on leadership development and mental health.
As of May 2020, 95% of educators and school staff surveyed by ImmSchools felt their training helped them increase their knowledge and feel better prepared to support undocumented students. The organization has programming in over 30 school districts spanning Texas, New York and Illinois. It does not have publicly available data on the impact of programming on academic outcomes.
ImmSchools’ impact, Rojas said, extends beyond its three-pronged approach — especially for the students and families they support.
Last year, Rojas’s father was hospitalized due to COVID-19 and couldn’t work. ImmSchools helped provide financial support for the Rojas family during that time, which Melanie said took away some of her stress.
Recently, Rojas volunteered with ImmSchools at a vaccination clinic where she helped with registration.
As she arrived at the site and got off the bus, Rojas saw an older man walking with his daughter out of the clinic and toward their car.
As he approached, his grandson, who was waiting in the car, said: “Abuelito! Abuelito! Ya viene!”
“Grandpa! Grandpa! You’re coming back!”
Rojas teared up. ImmSchools had not only helped her family, she said, but also continued doing so for many others.
“They have helped us so much and I don’t think they’ll ever understand how much that help really meant to us,” Rojas said.