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School districts up and down the state, including San Diego Unified, have said they’ll work to protect undocumented students. But what do they really mean, and how far do the protections actually extend?
To quell rising anxieties over immigration enforcement and deportation, Superintendent Cindy Marten this week sent a letter to San Diego Unified parents, assuring them that immigration agents wouldn’t be allowed to conduct raids on school campuses.
“The district believes that the presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement is likely to lead to a disruption of the educational setting,” Marten wrote in the letter. “Therefore, the district will not permit immigration raids or other activities on campus that disturb the school setting.”
The letter follows a resolution the district passed in December, which affirmed the district’s commitment to making sure that schools are safe spaces for all students. In keeping with guidance from Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent, school districts up and down the state have passed similar resolutions.
The resolutions roundly state that school districts welcome students, regardless of religion, origin or immigration status.
But what do they really mean, and how far do the protections actually extend?
Marten mentioned in her letter a policy issued by the Department of Homeland Security several years ago. Marten wrote: “Since 2011, the Department of Homeland Security has considered schools ‘off limits’ for immigration enforcement; and the district will consider to press them to maintain that policy.”
Indeed, a 2011 memo from DHS says that schools, like churches, are to be considered “sensitive locations,” and that immigration agents should avoid entering sensitive locations unless there’s an overriding need to protect public safety.
The memo is clear, however, that the policy does not preclude immigration agents from entering sensitive locations if there’s a pressing need – say, for the purpose of serving a warrant, or if they believe a dangerous individual is located in the school.
And while the 2011 memo reflects the soft touch DHS has taken toward schools in recent years, the new Trump administration certainly could change the policy, said local immigration attorney Ginger Jacobs.
Still, Jacobs believes it is highly unlikely ICE would make schools the focal point of immigration enforcement, in part because the agency could expect significant protest from the community. Jacobs points to a situation in 2009 in which three teenagers were detained by Border Patrol agents while waiting at the Old Town trolley station and taken to Mexico that same day. The apprehension sparked intense pushback from the community, and could be part of what prompted the 2011 DHS memo, Jacobs said.
Defining schools as safe havens is a lot like calling a municipality a “sanctuary city”: The phrase sounds good, and it’s often repeated, but few people are quite sure what it means exactly (including, as it turns out, new Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly).
And that raises one big question: Are school districts and cities promising protections to students and families they can’t uphold?
“Any municipality or school that guarantees people that ICE can’t get to them in that location is giving people false hope,” said Jacobs. “That being said, it is important for districts to make a statement to parents and students that says ‘You are welcome here, notwithstanding your immigration status.’ ”
Jacobs said that in recent months, as community concerns over immigration sweeps have increased, she’s been overwhelmed with calls from fearful residents seeking guidance.
“Clients are saying they’re so afraid of ICE that they’re barricading themselves in their homes. That’s no life at all. So it is important for cities and school districts to say, ‘You are welcome.’ Because otherwise, what kind of society are we creating? We’re creating a society with second-class citizens.” Jacobs said.
Finally, it’s worth noting that while the new administration has heightened fear and anxiety of deportation, these same concerns have been smoldering for years. An untold number of local students have lived for years under fear that their parents could be deported, without notice, while they’re away at school.
And anecdotally, teachers, service providers and parents can list ways immigration fears have played out in schools – whether it’s a father who is reluctant to get involved at school, or a mother who is afraid to seek out subsidized preschool for her children out of fear it will be held against her in immigration hearings (it won’t).
In that way, the recent conversation about deportation fears is raising questions about the immigration system that have needed answers for years.
Jacobs recommends that parents seeking additional information check out Ready Now San Diego, which provides guidance for students and parents who want know their legal rights and advice on creating emergency plans in case of deportation.
For the past month, San Diego Unified officials have been scrambling to figure out how they’re going to respond to the district’s looming $124 million budget shortfall. For schools, that means looking for cuts that will have the least impact on classrooms.
The district’s press office is not confirming any specific cuts, saying that decisions will not be final for another week.
But parents and teachers have been passing me notes and emails about the coming cuts. Among the things mentioned: Curie Elementary recently ran out of paper for students and, due to a district spending freeze, needed to get approval from the district’s chief financial officer in order to buy more.
That schools are going without paper may be the least of the concerns. A note sent out recently by the principals union informed its members that they’ll likely face the brunt of cuts. The district has told a number of elementary schools they’ll lose their vice principals next year.
Among other changes, the district is planning to reorganize its special education department and consolidate services at particular schools. Parents whose children have moderate and severe disabilities expressed concerns at this week’s board meeting that their children will have to switch schools to retain services.
And parents whose children are learning English expressed concern at this week’s school board meeting that the district is planning further cuts to the English-learner support teachers who work one-on-one with their children. Further cuts, as in … cutting all those positions.
We’ve been here before. In 2014, up against a last-minute budget crunch, Marten decided to halve the number of English-learner support teachers in the district. She couched those changes as more of reorganization than cuts to services. But in the two school years that followed, parents have consistently expressed confusion about the plan to replace them.
In addition to working one-on-one with students, English-learner support teachers historically provided a crucial communication link between schools and families, in large part because many of them spoke families’ native language. Moving forward, schools will have to reconsider who will perform the work they’d previously done.
Last week, shortly after protesters in Washington D.C. temporarily blocked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos from visiting a public school, Marten was grabbing breakfast with Diane Ravitch.
Ravitch is an education historian who’s well-known for her criticisms of charter schools and school choice. She’s also a big fan of Marten. She recommended Marten invite DeVos to San Diego to see the work being done in schools.
“I told her she should invite DeVos to see the schools, see how they address the needs of English language learners and kids with disabilities,” Ravitch wrote.
Later that week, in a resolution put forward by San Diego Unified Trustee Richard Barrera, the school board welcomed (and simultaneously bashed) DeVos. But before the board could approve the invitation at the following board meeting, word reached Lindsay Burningham, president of the local teachers union. She said she and her members were not on board.
The school board moved quickly to withdraw the invitation.
“The intention was to help (DeVos) learn all the things that public schools are doing well. We also believed – and still believe – that her narrow ideologically driven view of our schools does not stand up to the facts. So, my intention was to challenge her views openly and in a public setting,” Barrera wrote in a statement. “Given the polarizing nature of the DeVos nomination and confirmation vote, however, it is clear this would be the wrong time to engage the Secretary in dialogue. Now is the time for those of us who believe in public education to stand together and confront the threat clearly posed by the DeVos ideology.”