- This article – the first of a three-part series – was reported by The74Million.org, a nonpartisan education news nonprofit, in partnership with the Guardian
- From Los Angeles to Miami to New York, dozens of school districts are vowing to shield students and their families from immigration authorities
It’s been an excruciating six months since 14-year-old Fatima Avelica watched, sobbing, as immigration agents picked up her father on their way to school.
Fatima’s father, Rómulo Avelica-González, who immigrated illegally from Mexico in the 1990s, had driven Fatima and her 12-year-old sister, Yuleni, to school in Los Angeles every morning for years, despite a deportation order hanging over his head. But a month after Donald Trump took office as president and called for ramped-up immigration arrests, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents pulled over the family’s car.
The wrenching video of the arrest that Fatima took from the backseat went viral, capturing a moment that would come to symbolize the anguish of schoolchildren who have seen their families torn apart by aggressive immigration enforcement, as well as the anxiety of others who worry their families could be next.
For many of the estimated 1 million undocumented children in the US — and the roughly 4.5 million young people, like Fatima and Yuleni, born here and with at least one undocumented parent (like Fatima and Yuleni) — anxiety travels with them from home to school, creating a climate of fear in which learning is disrupted and classrooms are destabilized.
As Trump tightens immigration enforcement, education officials across the country are launching a national resistance movement, declaring their schools “sanctuaries” from Trump’s immigration policies. Superintendents and school board members from districts as diverse as Miami, Milwaukee, Chicago, New York City, Des Moines and Portland,
Oregon have created or revised “sanctuary school” resolutions, vowing to shield students’ personal data from immigration authorities and block federal agents’ access to school property unless they present a warrant.
California — where about 250,000 undocumented children are enrolled in public schools and 750,000 have at least one undocumented parent — is at the forefront of the movement. Statewide, about 60 schools and county education offices have adopted resolutions to safeguard undocumented students. Lawmakers are also debating a “sanctuary state” bill that, in part, takes aim at potential data mining that could use students’ personal information to uncover their immigration status.
“It’s not that the public school necessarily has a file that says, ‘These kids are undocumented’ and ‘These kids aren’t undocumented,’” said Adam Schwartz, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that fights for online privacy. Rather, schools collect all kinds of personal information about students, including addresses and languages spoken at home. “One database by itself might not tell you anything,” he said. “But when you sew it all together, when this mosaic comes together, a motivated party could use this to begin to identify who undocumented immigrants are.”
All children living in America have the legal right to attend public schools, regardless of their immigration status, due to a 1982 Supreme Court decision. And since 2011 Immigration and Customs Enforcement has maintained a policyof avoiding enforcement activities at schools. In a statement, agency spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said the policy remains in effect under the Trump administration, adding that the Department of Homeland Security is “committed to ensuring that people seeking to participate in activities or utilize services provided at any sensitive location are free to do so without fear or hesitation,” though she added that authorities “will no longer exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement”.
Still, many immigrant families worry that enrollment in school could create data and paper trails that expose them to possible enforcement action. And Trump’s executive orders on immigration encourage collaboration between federal and local authorities, triggering concern that local police officers stationed inside schools might share information with federal immigration agents.
In the first 100 days after Trump signed executive orders ramping up immigration enforcement, federal agents arrested more than 41,000 people for civil immigration offenses, a 38% increase over the same period in 2016. His proposed 2018 budget, which faces an uphill battle in Congress, calls for the hiring of an additional 1,500 immigration agents at a cost of $300 million and earmarks $1.5 billion for expanding detention and deportation efforts. On 2 August, Trump announced a proposal that would halve the number of legal immigrants admitted to the country over the next decade.
The heightened enforcement has brought heightened anxiety. After the recent presidential election, some schools saw marked drops in attendance as immigrant parents, afraid of exposing their children to the authorities, kept their kids at home.
Schools in Las Cruces, New Mexico, saw a 60% spike in absences following a local immigration raid in February. That coincided with a national Day Without Immigrants protest when several districts across the country reported a surge in absences; but many students didn’t return to class for a month or longer. Now as schools begin their academic year, the Las Cruces district is opening “international welcome centers” at four high schools to better serve students who are new to the US, said Roberto Lozano, the district’s chief officer of equity, innovation and social justice.
Some sanctuary school policies represent symbolic actions to show families that schools are on their side and educate them about their rights. Earlier this month, Los Angeles, where Fatima and Yuleni still attend school, rolled out the “We Are One” campaign. Online resources offer students and their families a list of local immigration attorneys and advice should they encounter federal authorities. They also recommend creating a family preparedness plan and designating a trusted adult to care for a child if an emergency arises.
Coincidentally, in the days after LA superintendent Michelle King announced the campaign, Fatima and Yuvelina received some good news. On 10 August, an immigration appeals court threw out their father’s deportation order. He could be released on bond by the end of the month, though deportation proceedings could take years.
In Oakland, California schools have new posters — in multiple languages — that proclaim: “Oakland schools are sanctuary schools, you are welcome here.”
“Walls speak,” said Nicole Knight, executive director of the district’s English language learner and multilingual achievement office. “When the community comes in and this is one of the first messages that they see, that’s comforting to them. They know that the school has their back.”
Francisco Negrón, chief legal officer at the National School Boards Association, said he fielded questions from education leaders after the election about the legality of sanctuary resolutions. His advice: be cautious, because “sanctuary” is not a legal term and is, in some instances, “politically loaded”. In those conversations, Negrón said, he warns districts to not “overpromise” the protections they can provide to undocumented families.
Though they don’t always carry much legal weight, sanctuary school resolutions help ease parents’ and children’s anxiety by ensuring that teachers and principals know how to respond if immigration agents go to a school or request student information.
A new sanctuary school policy in Portland, Oregon reminds staffers they may not disclose the immigration status or other personal information about students, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. In Oakland, school administrators received training this month on what to do under the district’s sanctuary resolution should enforcement activity occur at or near a school.
The resolutions can also help counter fear generated by heated political rhetoric and misinformation. In a television interview earlier this year, Mike Ritze, a Republican member of Oklahoma’s House of Representatives, said the cash-strapped state spends $60m to educate non-English-speaking students and officials should “identify them and then turn them over to ICE to see if they truly are citizens, and do we really have to educate non-citizens?”
Ritze later said he was referring to non-English-speaking students with criminal records. “If they’re a criminal, they should be turned over to ICE,” he said. “Murder trumps educating a 16-year-old.”
That sort of talk, some school officials say, is why sanctuary resolutions are so important.