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‘Your child is safe’: Schools address deportation fears among immigrant families

A girl watches a workshop in Los Angeles for immigrants to make a preparedness plan, in case they are confronted by immigration officials, at the charter school near where Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez was arrested by ICE agents. (David Mcnew/AFP/Getty Images)

The schools superintendent in Harrisonburg, Va., was meeting parents this month when a mother broke down in tears, explaining that she was undocumented. What would the school do, she asked, if she became separated from her children?

“I remember walking up to her and putting my arm on her shoulder and saying, ‘Your child is safe at our school,’ ” said Scott Kizner, the city schools chief. But he also advised those at the meeting in the Shenandoah Valley that any parents worried about deportation “need to make plans.”

Across the country, President Trump’s promise to crack down on illegal immigration is leading schools with large immigrant communities to consider how to care for children whose parents could be detained in federal raids. Parents, teachers and administrators have raised questions about how schools should respond if U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents come to a school to take away students or obtain records — even though the agency’s policy restricts enforcement actions on school grounds.

Officials in Sacramento, Denver, Chicago and Miami have declared their schools havens, out of reach of ICE agents without special permission or a warrant.

The Los Angeles school board voted days after the November election to resist any Trump administration attempts to use student data against students or families in immigration matters. A Wisconsin school district sent information home advising parents to keep their doors shut, stay silent and refuse to sign anything if ICE agents visit their home.

In Virginia, the state schools chief urged local superintendents this month to ensure schools have current emergency contact information for parents and to prepare for situations in which children are stranded at school. The Maryland State Department of Education has not issued similar guidance, but a spokesman said the state's long-standing policies mirror Virginia's. D.C. Public Schools put out a statement in six languages urging advance preparation: "Discuss whether you would wish your children to remain here, in the United States, or whether you would want your children going with you."

Educators say connecting parents to community resources to help them prepare for family-separation scenarios is part of their job to ensure that children feel as secure as possible in class.

“Our goal is to get children in school and have them engage in learning,” said Steven R. Staples, superintendent of public instruction for Virginia. “A frightened child doesn’t learn much.” He also said the state doesn’t want children “to be missing days of school because of concerns about immigration status.”

Millions of U.S. children face growing uncertainty at home because of shifts in immigration policy. The Pew Research Center estimates 3.9 million schoolchildren had an unauthorized immigrant parent in 2014 — or 7.3 percent of all schoolchildren. About 725,000 of those children were unauthorized immigrants themselves.

Trump has pledged to deport millions of unauthorized immigrants and erect a wall on the southern border to stop more from entering the country. Since taking office, he has expanded the pool of immigrants prioritized for deportation, sped up some deportation proceedings and called for hiring more border patrol and immigration enforcement officers. ICE arrests of undocumented immigrants in recent weeks have drawn widespread publicity.

All of these developments have spread fear among immigrants. Some have retreated to their homes and stopped going to work.

Immigrant community on high alert, fearing Trump’s ‘deportation force’

Historically, ICE agents have avoided schools. A 2011 memo says they are barred from arresting or interviewing people at schools, churches, hospitals and other “sensitive locations,” unless there is an imminent threat or they seek approval. Carissa Cuttrell, a spokeswoman for ICE, said 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.”

Read the ICE memo that describes the agency’s “sensitive locations” policy

There has been scrutiny in recent weeks of ICE actions near sensitive locations. In Alexandria, Va., agents arrested men after they left a church homeless shelter. Another man was detained in Los Angeles about a half-mile from a charter school after he dropped off his daughter. The local teachers union called the arrest "a deliberate tactic being deployed by the Trump administration to spread fear."

He dropped his daughter off at school. Minutes later, immigration agents took him away.

ICE said the man in Los Angeles, Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, had “multiple prior criminal convictions” and an outstanding order for removal that dated back to 2014.

In his memo to Virginia schools, Staples reminded superintendents that ICE agents are barred from school grounds unless they have a warrant and that student records should not be released without a subpoena.

“Several superintendents who happened to have fairly large immigrant populations were mindful that it was a possibility, and given the national conversation I think their inclination was to seek advice before they had an incident rather than afterward,” Staples said.

Not everyone agrees that schools should be off-limits for immigration enforcement.

Corey Stewart, chair of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors in Virginia and a Republican candidate for governor, said immigration agents need to be in schools to combat violence, some of which has been linked to gangs that recruit in schools and have members who are unauthorized immigrants.

“It’s not the school’s role to interpose between and to try to stop ICE from doing its job,” Stewart said. He added that he was not concerned that the presence of immigration agents could deter other undocumented students from coming to school. “Rooting out gangs, especially those who are preying on children, is a much higher priority than not offending a couple of illegal aliens.”

Many school officials say they want to allay the fears of families. They have hosted educational and legal seminars for immigrants, and in some cases assigned staff to support them. In Harrisonburg, Kizner assembled a crisis response team for immigrant students and their families. He also sent home forms to parents, asking in English and Spanish: “In the event of family separation (accident, arrest, emergency hospitalization, etc.) who will take care of your child temporarily?”

The Prince George’s County school system in Maryland has worked with the county government to place bilingual “community resource officers” in schools to support students dealing with immigration-related problems.

Parent-teacher associations in Alexandria have organized “know your rights” seminars, with the first held this month in an elementary school auditorium. At that event, an attorney from the Tahirih Justice Center urged undocumented parents to think about who would care for their children and what would happen to their property if they are detained.

“Folks are very, very fearful and very uncertain, but I think also wanting to be as proactive as they can be,” Kathryn Finley, the attorney, said.

Despite the words of reassurance, many immigrant parents — even those with legal status — are anxious.

“Our families, and quite frankly, our staff are terrified,” Allegra “Happy” Haynes, a member of Denver’s school board, said at a recent conference of the Council of the Great City Schools. “And despite the resolution we passed that you don’t get into our schools without a court order, they remain fearful.” Staff are scared that they might somehow violate the law, she said, even as they focus on “protecting their kids.”

Catherine E. Lhamon, a former assistant education secretary for civil rights in the Obama administration, said at the conference that schools can take many steps to help families. But ultimately, she said, they must also acknowledge that they can’t guarantee anything about the direction of federal immigration policy.

“That’s just a chilling reality,” Lhamon said.

Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this report.

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