The schools chief in Prince George’s County recently warned educators that more students might be absent from class or struggle with increased fear amid what some see as stepped-up federal enforcement actions against immigrants.
Kevin Maxwell wrote that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers have been increasingly aggressive in their arrests of those facing deportation in Maryland, based on information from the public defender’s office. He gave principals and staff advice about talking to worried families and highlighted details about federal policy.
“The most important action you and your staff can take is reiterate that Prince George’s County Public Schools will continue to be safe places where students and families will be welcome without fear of harm,” he wrote in boldface type in the Dec. 7 letter.
Maxwell’s message came amid growing efforts by school districts to reassure immigrant communities ahead of President-elect Donald Trump taking office in January. Many are scared that Trump — who put illegal immigration at the center of his campaign — will ramp up deportation efforts, already significant during the Obama administration.
Educators want to be sure that one thing is clear: In schools, immigration status is not an issue. Many school districts have reaffirmed that all children in the United States have a right to a public education.
The District’s interim chancellor, John Davis, recently posted a message that addressed concerns about immigration status. In Minneapolis, the school board recently voted to declare the school district a safe haven for all. The Los Angeles school board also affirmed its policy to keep ICE agents off school campuses unless the superintendent and district lawyers consent.
The American Civil Liberties Union recently reminded administrators in each of Virginia’s 132 school districts that they cannot deny enrollment to undocumented students or allow immigration enforcement action on school grounds.
“We’re encouraging school officials to be proactive in talking with students and the broader community with these issues,” said ACLU spokesman Bill Farrar, noting that such efforts also could help prevent bullying or harassment.
Maxwell was among the superintendents who spoke out to reassure families after reports of federal immigration raids in January. Prince George’s school officials said at the time that attendance among Latino students had fallen, with parents keeping their children home from school because of deportation fears.
Maxwell weighed in again in recent weeks after a public defender’s assessment of increased enforcement action was forwarded to a school official.
The Maryland Office of the Public Defender cited a more aggressive approach by ICE in making arrests in and near courtrooms in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in recent months. The arrests, in a handful of cases, have come while defendants were at court on criminal matters unrelated to their immigration status, said Melissa Rothstein, the office’s director of policy and development.
Rothstein also noted that the public defender’s office received a recent report that after 150 to 200 people showed up at an ICE office in Baltimore in response to letters that called them in for an “interview,” some were taken into ICE custody. The scale of the enforcement action was larger than others the office had heard about before, she said.
Asked about ratcheting up enforcement, federal officials issued a statement saying, “ICE continues to focus its immigration enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security.” ICE has said it avoids taking enforcement actions at “sensitive locations” such as schools and churches.
George Escobar, senior director of human services at CASA, an advocacy group, said school efforts are important, with some immigrants and advocates on edge.
“There is a vague, ominous negative feeling that something is going to happen,” he said. “We’re in a very difficult moment right now. It’s a dark cloud over all of us.”
Lori Kaplan, chief executive of the Latin American Youth Center, which has offices in the District and Maryland, said her staff has urged nervous parents to continue sending their children to school. “We’ve let them know people just can’t walk in and have an immigration raid inside a school,” she said.
Several immigrant rights advocates pointed out that the Obama administration has been aggressively removing people from the country, having deported at least 2.7 million immigrants as of last year, with a focus on those who have committed crimes.
“Are we seeing more enthusiastic ICE officers? Unfortunately, we’ve seen that all year,” Escobar said. “Unfortunately, people get deported and detained on a daily basis.” He said he thinks that, after Trump’s victory, public awareness is up, with many people “looking at ICE with a watchful eye.”
But Escobar said the idea of making arrests in courts is troubling. He cited several instances earlier this year of arrests near the courthouse in Baltimore County as people were arriving or leaving. “Courts are used by immigrants to seek justice in a wide variety of situations,” he said, such as testifying as witnesses in criminal cases.
Much of what schools want to convey is that students are not in peril when they are on campus.
Student absences do not appear to have spiked in recent weeks, but Nora Morales, diversity officer in the Prince George’s school system, said the district wants to make sure that families understand educators do not ask about immigration status and would not share such information if they knew it.
“My primary concern is that our school community knows our schools are safe spaces and that students will be valued, respected and welcomed,” she said. “There are a lot of unanswered questions about immigration reform. One thing remains constant: If kids don’t show up to school, they won’t learn.”
Emma Brown contributed to this report.