With massive U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids affecting Mississippi families yesterday, areas with large immigrant communities are going to be on high alert.
Following the seven raids that resulted in 680 arrests, Southern Poverty Law Center Attorney Julia Solórzano, with the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project, called the raids a part of an "ongoing war against immigrants," one that will have a significant effect on children in the school districts.
"These sorts of raids terrorize workers and their families," he said. "What’s more, today’s raids needlessly ripped parents from their children during the first week of school."
Roxana Gonzalez's Chicago middle school classroom, which is occasionally filled with a sense of remorse following anti-immigrant action, will be one of the communities affected. A social studies teacher at Dr. Jorge Prieto Math and Science Academy, Gonzalez has become familiar with the anxieties of her majority Latinx community through daily conversations about current events.
“I want Hillary [Clinton] to win because then my parents get to stay here,” a student told her one day during the 2016 presidential election cycle. “They’re going to send me back.”
Exchanges like these are not uncommon for Gonzalez to have with her students, especially now that President Donald Trump has renewed his threat of ICE raids.
Many communities in Mississippi, Chicago and across the country will be feeling the blowback in the classroom this fall. With anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies heightening, schools and districts are taking steps to address the growing fears of the immigrant communities they serve.
What the law says
While it is uncommon for ICE to encroach on school property — guidance from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security prohibits the federal law enforcement agency from apprehending on school grounds and other sensitive locations — principals and educators, especially those placed in high undocumented populations, should be aware of their legal obligations to ICE and their students, said Brian Schwartz, an education lawyer who has served as general counsel for the Illinois Principals Association for 20 years.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects all student record information from being released to federal agencies without parent permission. Except in the case of court orders, subpoenas or an administrative removal warrant, schools are prohibited by this law from sharing any incriminating information that could be contained within school records.
While FERPA allows schools to provide “directory information” (not including social security cards) without parent consent, they are required to give parents and eligible students a reasonable amount of time to request that this information not be disclosed.
In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court also weighed in on educator responsibility toward undocumented students in Plyler v. Doe. In the 5-4 decision, the court ruled that undocumented children have a constitutional right to receive a free public K-12 education. Some schools have interpreted this decision as prohibiting them from requiring students to provide social security cards or birth certificates as a condition of enrollment.
The Department of Education also says schools should not inquire into the immigration or citizenship status of a student or parent as a means of establishing residency. “Schools cannot do anything that could exclude or harm a child’s ability to go to school in the district where they’re living,” Schwartz said.
While Plyler offers protection for undocumented students, Schwartz also points to growing concerns in the legal community about the case possibly being overturned in the near future considering the thin margin with which it passed and the current right-leaning bench.
SEL practices key for high undocumented populations
But this concern is irrelevant for some, like National immigration Law Center (NILC) Staff Attorney and UC President's Public Service Law Fellow Sarah Kim Pak, who said schools should instead continue to comply with Plyler and make families feel welcome regardless of the Trump administration’s tone.
“We can use a strong authority of the Plyer v. Doe case and empower our students and communities instead of feeding into the speculation and anxiety of what may happen,” she said.
Approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school each year, and in California, one in 13 students is undocumented. According to Pew Research Center data, children of unauthorized immigrants represent a growing share of K-12 students, and about 3.9 million students in public and private schools had at least one unauthorized parent in 2014.
For those students, the threat of family separation can be accompanied by trauma, anxiety, stress and fear that is reflected in the classroom through attendance, academic performance and behavioral or psychological problems. A survey of DACA recipients showed at least 49% worry “all the time” or “most of the time” that friends and family members will be deported.
“Our immigrant communities and all of our students carry a lot of trauma,” Gonzalez said. “Being able to respond in a way that allows healing to happen necessitates teacher training.”
Giving space in a classroom where students can discuss current events that affect them and then addressing their social-emotional needs, she explained, is one way schools can help students deal with this trauma.
“Zen zones,” or self-monitored spaces where students can take a 5- or 10-minute break from the classroom without adult supervision to write, draw or just catch their breath, allow students to process classroom discussions in a healthy way.
“This requires a keen awareness of the social-emotional needs beyond just the academics that we’re often pushed to prioritize,” Gonzalez pointed out.
But schools often don’t provide the necessary resources or training, and they sometimes lack key players like social workers, social justice coordinators and full-time counselors who ensure that students are getting the support they need.
These resources are especially critical for students whose family members are taken by ICE, says Nina Rabin, the director of a legal immigration clinic in Los Angeles that provides resources for students. Schools can support these students by providing legal and mental health services, partnering with or pointing students toward local immigration nonprofits, and establishing community support. In some cases, Rabin says, administrators can even help by writing letters of support for students and their parent's immigration cases.
Teachers including Gonzalez, who is a member of the Chicago Teachers Union, are now bargaining with the city’s Board of Education to include language in their new contracts that would allow for better staffing, training and policies. They are negotiating to ensure teachers are not penalized for assisting families and students personally impacted by anti-immigration measures and to ensure training for everyone, including school safety personnel, on how to deal with ICE agents.
Included in their contract bargaining is language that would reinforce the city’s schools as sanctuaries.
Sanctuary schools and smaller steps ease worries
Last year, following massive raids in Nashville, local Tennessee schools saw a sharp drop in attendance, with over 550 children staying home from school out of fear.
“The consequence of immigration enforcement in the community, on youth, on schools, was clearly palpable,” Kim Pak recalled.
Then, when Tennessee passed House Bill 2315, prohibiting all sanctuary policies, any plans to implement safe school policies were derailed.
“Educators were worried that if they have a policy or statement of inclusivity in schools, would that run afoul of state law?” said Kim Pak, noting that there was a lot of confusion among schools that followed.
For schools prohibited by state law from providing sanctuary, organizations like the NILC partner with state organizations and schools to ensure educators still receive training on the law. “We don’t want educators to face any liability for enforcing school safety procedures in violation of state law, but also respect their aspirations to protect their students from immigration enforcement,” she said.
The organization also provides online webinar training and model sanctuary policies that schools can adopt if their state permits.
Suggested sanctuary policies not only restrict federal authority access to sites and protect the records and privacy of all students, but also run the gamut when it comes to providing resources and information for students and their families.
Among schools that have adopted sanctuary policies include RFK Community Schools, which is a part of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) — also a sanctuary district. A critical resource established within the school complex is a relatively new clinic, The Immigrant Family Legal Clinic, which provides everything from “Know Your Rights” trainings to representation on immigration matters.
However, a key part of serving undocumented populations is making them feel safe when attending training sessions or seeking help, according to Rabin, who is the director of the clinic.
Gonzalez, who spearheaded a social justice committee within her school following Trump’s election, said simple gestures like personally handing out flyers to parents, encouraging older students to be involved, and providing free childcare during any training events can make families feel comfortable in asking for help.
Schools should also be deliberate in their messaging to families, The NYC Leadership Academy suggests.
“Communicate with families (in multiple languages) regarding the districts policies and practices to support undocumented students,” Michele Shannon, vice president of district leadership for the national organization, said. Posting these messages throughout school buildings, on district and school websites, and in written communication to families can also put families at ease, she said.
Incorporating lesson plans and activities that include students who might be bullied or face social isolation as a result of the current climate can also help reach out to students where the surrounding undocumented population is low.
“That is part of the vision of what it means to be a sanctuary school,” Rabin said.