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Immigrant and refugee students learn about their rights

Attorney Elizabeth Read led a session at “Know Your Rights Day” at Boston International High School on Friday.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Attorney Elizabeth Read stood before the classroom full of teenage immigrants at Boston International Newcomers Academy — where a sign on the door announced in eight languages that “Everyone is welcome here!” — and explained their rights if they are ever detained by an immigration official.

“You have the right to make a phone call,” she told them Friday afternoon, as their teacher translated into Spanish. “If you are detained, they can take your cell. You must memorize phone numbers. It’s hard! But you must.”

Some youths nodded. A boy in the back tipped his head back. “Ay ay ay!’’ he exclaimed, and the crowd of somber faces lightened with laughter.


Read’s presentation was one of 25 Know Your Rights talks given to students at the Dorchester school, where all 500 students are immigrants or refugees from 42 countries. Some of the students are in the country illegally.

The talks were organized by the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project and conducted by volunteer lawyers.

“The Know Your Rights [presentations] are here to prevent panic and speculation,” said attorney Anita P. Sharma, PAIR’s executive director. “Immigrants aren’t alone in Massachusetts.”

Sharma said her organization started the presentations after the presidential election, when they began receiving panicked phone calls from people afraid of being deported, unsure of their rights, or at risk of falling for immigration scams.

The PAIR Project has trained more than 300 lawyers across the state, and delivered 250 presentations to 10,000 people in community centers, health centers, churches, and schools.

For the students at the Academy, who range in age from 14 to 21, President Trump’s directives — including his call for harsher immigration law enforcement and his currently blocked executive order banning travel from six majority-Muslim countries — have had immediate consequences on their lives.

“I feel sad,” said 15-year-old Alvaro, who came from Guatemala five months ago and asked that his last name not be used. “I’m with my dad here, and at any minute, immigration could come and there’s nothing we can do.”


After Read’s presentation, Alvaro said through a translator, he felt calmer.

All the students were given red cards to hand to immigration authorities that outline their rights, including the right to remain silent and to refuse to allow authorities to enter their homes. Alvaro said feeling prepared was a relief.

“This year, the level of anxiety is higher than in previous years, and I think it’s directly related to the election and executive actions,” said headmaster Tony King, who has been a teacher, administrator, or principal with the school for 10 years.

After the first travel ban executive order in January, one boy who had arrived legally as a refugee from Kenya asked King if it was unsafe for him to ride in cars, because if police stopped him, they could drive him directly to the airport and send him home, King said.

King said he has tried to reassure students by explaining their rights, reminding them that politicians in Massachusetts support immigrants, and talking to Muslim girls who wear head scarves about what to do if someone becomes aggressive.

Sowda Roble, a new arrival from Somalia, was one of the students who learned about rights at the Boston program.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

He gave them numbers to call — including his own — if they need help. Early this month, the school held a clinic for students to speak one on one with lawyers about their immigration status.


On Friday, the Know Your Rights presentations were tailored to groups of students by nationality. In Read’s classroom, where the students were Latino, she skipped talking about the travel ban and instead spent a lot of time on what happens when immigration officials detain people.

Down the hall, attorney William Lundin talked about the constitutional right to religious freedom, while translators relayed the message in Arabic and Somali to a classroom of Muslim students, most of whom were refugees.

Sowda Roble, a 16-year-old Somali refugee wearing a sparkling silver headscarf and a Red Sox shirt, said through a translator that America is a country where “every opportunity — education, everything — is available.”

She arrived here from a refugee camp in February 2016 with her mother and two brothers; four other siblings and her father stayed behind.

When Trump introduced the travel ban, which also would have temporarily prevented all refugees from coming to the United States, she said she was wounded.

“Why choose a poor country in a war, that’s devastated, and needs help from a great country like the United States?” she asked. “I know what it feels like to be in a refugee camp, and wait for hope. It hurts. [All of a sudden,] you are told the hope dies.”

Sowda started to cry. She had walked for days through the desert to the refugee camp, people dying around her, she said.

The Know Your Rights presentation from the attorney, she said, was helpful. And she still loves America. The people “have good hearts.” And she has dreams here: maybe she will be a lawyer, she said, or a teacher.


The PAIR Project has trained more than 300 lawyers across the state, and delivered 250 presentations to 10,000 people in community centers, health centers, churches, and schools. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com.