- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Obama administration Tuesday pushed illegal immigrant youths to enroll in high school and college and announced a list of guarantees in schools and tips to help students apply for scholarships or financial aid.

In a 63-page handbook, the Education Department urged schools to create support groups for illegal immigrant students and their families and warned against asking about students’ legal status.

“Message publicly that your institution supports undocumented students and their rights to a high-quality education,” the handbook said.

The administration hopes to enlist schools in the effort to normalize the experience of being in the country without authorization. The guidance specifically urged schools to challenge leaders in states “with exclusionary or less inclusive policies.”

The moves were the most expansive yet for President Obama, who has made a major effort during his second term to mainstream illegal immigrants. Despite laws making their presence in the country illegal, he said, the young immigrants should be welcomed and offered government support.

The education policy drew praise from immigrant rights advocates but sparked an outcry from those who want tougher enforcement and say the administration is turning illegal immigrants into special-needs students on par with children with autism or dyslexia.

“If you read between the lines, I think there’s a veiled threat that if you’re not following certain procedures you could be violating their rights in some way,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies.

The administration called on schools to assist with immigration policy the same day the White House threatened to veto a Senate bill designed to enlist police in helping federal deportation authorities pursue criminal illegal immigrants.

The White House said the police effort would foster distrust in immigrant communities, but administration officials said the education policy was a way to help youths who are not receiving equal treatment.

In a letter, Education Department Secretary Arne Duncan asked colleges to try to get more illegal immigrants to enroll in Mr. Obama’s amnesty for so-called Dreamers. Known officially as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program grants work permits and a two-year stay of deportation to illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. before age 16 and have completed high school or are working on a diploma.

The American Federation of Teachers said it was thrilled to be enlisted on behalf of illegal immigrants and that it already had taken steps to welcome those students.

“Across the country, there are millions of undocumented youth who dream of a better life. At the AFT, we believe that all schools should be safe havens where children can dream their dreams and achieve them, and it is our job to help them get there,” Mary Cathryn Ricker, the federation’s executive vice president, said in a statement.

Illegal immigrant students are the most sympathetic figures in the immigration debate, and Mr. Obama has used them repeatedly as a test for lenient policies.

In 2012, he announced the Dream Act, which granted young illegal immigrants a stay of deportation and issued them work permits, allowing them to get driver’s licenses and Social Security cards — the keys to integrating into society. Mr. Obama tried to expand the successful program to millions of illegal immigrant parents last year but met resistance in the courts, where judges saw as an overreach of executive powers.

Supreme Court rulings guarantee illegal immigrants the right to a public education in elementary and secondary schools.

Some states and public colleges have gone further and granted in-state tuition rates, and even financial aid, to illegal immigrants at public colleges and universities. Federal law has no such requirement.

Illegal immigrant students themselves have become much better organized and have had solid successes in pushing for relaxed rules at the state level. In several cases, law school graduates have even won the right to be admitted to state bars as practicing lawyers.

John King, a top Education Department official, announced the steps in a meeting with illegal immigrant students in San Francisco, saying he knows they face “unique challenges” for education.

Ms. Vaughan, at the Center for Immigration Studies, said she wasn’t sure why the Education Department felt it needed to step in at this point, nor why local school officials were the right ones to task with welcoming illegal immigrants.

“This is a controversial area of law, and it’s not directly related to education per se. It’s an immigration policy issue,” she said. “Really, they’re asking them to become advocates for them — not just for their educational needs, but crossing a line into political advocacy to pressure state lawmakers to adjust laws on their behalf.”

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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