MANHATTAN — Teachers at Gramercy’s International High School — which exclusively serves new immigrants — say they have already seen President-elect Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric manifest in real ways at the building they share with five other schools.
The day after the election, a student from Africa told staff she was waiting for the elevator inside the Washington Irving campus building on East 17th Street when students from one of the other schools approached her and said, “Elevators are not for immigrants anymore,” according to Thomas Hasler, an 11th grade earth science teacher at International High.
“We are worried,” said Hasler, the school's union chapter leader, who said he and his colleagues immediately convened a meeting to create an anti-bullying action plan proposal for his principal.
Nearly 17 percent of the city’s 1.1 million students were born outside of the United States and 42 percent of public school students speak a language other than English at home, according to data from the 2014-15 school year from the Independent Budget Office.
While there are no numbers yet on how many students may have been bullied for being an immigrant — and there are already numerous issues with the current system of recording incidents of bullying — advocates, parents and educators say the anecdotal evidence is concerning.
“We have been subject to almost two years of a vitriolic campaign — talk of a ‘deportation force,’ building a wall, banning Muslims,” Thanu Yakupitiyage, of the New York Immigration Coalition, said. “Especially in New York City where schools are extremely diverse and where there are schools that have a majority immigrant population, there’s probably a lot of shock and fear. A lot come from mixed-status homes — their parents might be undocumented. A lot of those children might be thinking, ‘What’s going to happen to my parents?’”
The nonprofit provides a variety of services like counseling, healthcare information and financial literacy to immigrant families at 22 schools across the city through its Key to the City program and helps train immigrant youth on being leaders through its New American Youth Leadership Core program. But the Coalition said it wants to be available and provide a “tangible means of support” to all educators, whether it’s by answering their questions about immigration or having someone from the coalition speak to their students.
“It’s about telling people they are valued,” Yakupitiyage said. “In Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, she said to all the little girls, ‘you’re valuable.’ I would say that to Muslim children in classrooms, to Latino children in classrooms — that you and your families’ presence in the U.S. is important.”
Hasler said he and his teachers have seen an increase in student fears as the campaign wound on, culminating the day after the election.
One Spanish-speaking student told his class Wednesday that her “dream to ever go to college died” with Trump's win because she's undocumented and her family is now talking about moving back to their native country, he said.
“They are talking about having to move back to avoid being torn apart,” she told the class, he said.
“Many of our kids are already afraid of authorities, but now are even more afraid,” Hasler said, adding that the school may consider staffing the entrance to the building with familiar teachers to start the day on a more welcoming note. “The kids know they can count on us.”
Among their recommendations is a plan to make the current process of going through the metal detectors less threatening to their students. Teachers are also talking about having legal advocacy groups on hand for next week’s parent/teacher conferences to help parents who don’t have a support system and might be afraid to ask others about their rights, he said.
Groups like the New York Immigration Coalition said they're already preparing practical support for schools.
“We have 70 days before the inauguration,” Yakupitiyage noted. “Today we’re really focusing on internal strategy. We’re going to have town halls, a hotline to answer questions and make sure people don’t panic.”
Deborah Axt, executive director of Make the Road New York, which promotes civil rights of immigrants, said they have been reaching out to students about whether they'll face deportation if Trump voids Obama’s executive order DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) halting deportation for those who’d entered the country before age 16.
Trump, in a speech given in October, pledged to cancel federal funding to "sanctuary" cities like New York, where local enforcement refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities, enabling undocumented immigrants, for instance, to access social services without having to reveal their status.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to do what he can to shield New York City's undocumented residents, saying Thursday, "We are not going to sacrifice half a million people who live among us and are part of our community."
Axt said her group is not going to let that happen without a fight.
“We will not be receding into the shadows,” said Axt, whose group was already working with city officials on ways to ensure that the “past reality of New York being a safe haven” is strengthened.
“We’re talking to kids that have DACA," Axt said. "We’re talking about the risk of tearing families apart."