Waco schools provide resources to support immigrant students

West Avenue Elementary School consists of 34.9 percent African American students, 61.3 percent Hispanic students and 3.8 percent white and other students. Photo credit: Liesje Powers

By Kalyn Story | Staff Writer

Waco Independent School District (Waco ISD) is made up of almost 90 percent students of color, 57 percent of which are Hispanic students.

In 2014, the Waco Tribune-Herald reported that Waco ISD had a 14 percent increase in the number of non-English-speaking students since the 2009-10 school year. This was almost double the state’s non-English-speaking residents growth, which had a 7.5 percent increase within the same time.

Of the non-English-speaking students currently enrolled in Waco ISD, 99 percent speak Spanish. The district had 13,125 non-English-speaking students enroll between the 2009-10 school year and 2013-14 school year, with the majority of those students entering preschool.

Bruce Gietzen, director of communications for Waco ISD, said the district knows that non-English-speaking students and their families and students who are immigrants can need specific resources. Gietzen said the school does its best to provide them with what they need or get them in touch with organizations in and around Waco which can help them.

“We love all our students and wish we could provide everything they need,” Gietzen said. “We do have outreach programs, but for more serious matters we do our best to connect students and their families to outside resources like Mission Waco, Greater Waco Legal Services and Lone Star Legal Aid.”

Greater Waco Legal Services founder Kent McKeever served as the attorney-director of Mission Waco Legal Services from 2012-16 before opening Greater Waco Legal Services earlier this year.

“We started Greater Waco Legal Services because of the unmet legal needs in the greater Waco-McLennan County area,” McKeever said. “After four and a half years working at Mission Waco running the legal services program, we knew that we needed to expand our services to meet the high demand in our community. The best structure for us to build our capacity was as an independent nonprofit, through which we can focus our structure on growing legal service delivery for our community.”

Greater Waco Legal Services offers direct representation, monthly free legal advice clinics, relational referrals, social services support, community legal empowerment workshops, and policy advocacy, McKeever said.

McKeever said they have seen a recent increase in immigration cases, saying that about 90 percent of current clients are immigration-related cases. However, over the past four and a half years, McKeever estimated clients breaking down to about 60 percent immigration, 30 percent housing (landlord-tenant, property tax and title issues, etc.), and 10 percent legal barriers to employment and miscellaneous.

McKeever said immigration law is an extremely complicated area of law. In his experience, he said it is a rare occasion when a person can successfully navigate the immigration process entirely on their own.

“Students and their families need to have an advocate – someone who won’t take advantage of them – someone who will shoot straight with them and someone they can trust to have their backs when necessary,” McKeever said.

Specifically, McKeever said Waco ISD students and their families need access to an experienced immigration lawyer, so they will not be tempted to consult with the “notaries” or “immigration consultants” in the Waco area, terms that have no legal definition. McKeever said he has seen some “notaries” and “consultants” break the law by providing immigration legal services while charging fees to the immigrant families. Some have even messed up the cases and lives of clients, McKeever said.

“It is important that Greater Waco Legal Services is here to provide a competent, affordable resource to our immigrant community. It is also vital that immigrants and their families know their rights and how to enforce them, as well as prepare themselves for the worst case scenarios if something bad happens,” McKeever said. “An educated and empowered community can make a huge difference in times like these.”

Lone Star Legal Services is another legal resource Waco ISD suggests students and families with immigration law concerns contact.

Lone Star Legal Aid is a nonprofit law firm that provides free civil legal help to low-income families. The firm is based out of Houston but has 12 remote branches, including one in Waco, according to its website.

Waco ISD’s website also lists Baylor Law School’s free Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) clinic as a resource they suggest students who qualify utilize.

The Law School’s clinic helps people who were brought to the United States illegally as a child to apply for DACA cards, which allow them to stay in the United States for a two year period without fear of deportation and get a worker authorization.

Links to all of these resources and others can be found on Waco ISD’s outreach website.