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Fatima Avelica, 13, daughter of Romulo Avelica, an immigrant who was arrested on Feb. 28 after he dropped his daughter at school, protests outside the ICE Federal Building in Los Angeles March 13.
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What does it mean to keep schools safe? Two different views in immigrant debate.

countering fear

From Miami to Minneapolis, schools are clarifying procedures to ensure students can access the education they are entitled to by law. In Montgomery County, Md., a different side of safety debate has played out after a student was attacked.

Anxiety rippled through the Austin, Texas, immigrant community in mid-February after federal agents rounded up and deported 51 people in the country illegally. More than half of the deportees had no additional criminal violations, federal officials confirmed.

That's when the Texas Here to Stay coalition sprang into action.

They stepped up their “know your rights” training sessions. They hosted workshops for educators wanting to make sure they had emergency contacts for students if their parents got deported, or wondering what to do if an agent showed up at school asking questions. They spread the word that the federal policy still in place is that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents do not conduct immigration enforcement in “sensitive locations” such as schools, except in the cases of emergencies or immediate threats to safety.

“Now that they know that, for the most part people feel safer sending their children to school," says Montserrat Garibay, a teachers union leader and a member of the coalition, who was undocumented 25 years ago and is now a US citizen. “But it’s still scary times.” 

Austin is among a growing number of school districts that have passed safe-zone policies. From Miami to Minneapolis, Beverly, Mass., to Fresno, Calif., they are sending public messages of reassurance to immigrant families and clarifying laws and procedures to ensure students can access the education they are entitled to regardless of immigration status.

Sometimes these school resolutions use the word “sanctuary,” stepping directly into heated debates about “sanctuary cities” and community safety. A few have even joined lawsuits challenging President Trump’s executive order relating to withholding funds for sanctuary cities, where officials say that keeping immigration enforcement and local policing separate makes people feel more comfortable reporting local crimes.

With a similar logic, these districts say their mission to educate all children is disrupted if families feel that enrolling or transporting their children to school will put them at greater risk for deportation.

“This has been such a sustained attack on the local level – cities, counties, schools, everyone’s feeling it,” says Jessica Hanson, an attorney and Skadden fellow at the National Immigration Law Center, an advocacy group for low-income immigrants. “To the extent that these various entities can stand in solidarity … to call the Trump administration’s bluff,… it all sends a very powerful message.”

But those who believe enforcing immigration laws is fundamental to establishing safety see the school districts’ resolutions as largely symbolic and political. “It’s an empty statement to whip up fear and opposition to Trump’s efforts to enforce the law,” says Bob Dane, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports reducing immigration. (The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated FAIR as a hate group, based on troubling racial statements by its founder; FAIR says it has longstanding rules about never advocating discriminatory immigration.) “There is no evidence that ICE has or ever would conduct operations on campuses.”

In one widely reported incident in Los Angeles, ICE agents arrested a father several blocks away from where he had just dropped his daughter off for school. It was videoed by another of his daughters.

About 725,000 K-12 students in the United States are unauthorized immigrants, according to 2014 data analyzed by the Pew Research Center. Another 3.2 million – about 6 percent of school enrollment – are US citizens with at least one unauthorized immigrant parent. In such states as Nevada and Texas, their share of the student body tops 13 percent.

Guidelines for immigrant students

Efforts to clarify how schools should treat undocumented students actually began long before Trump took office.

In 1982, the US Supreme Court struck down a Texas law that would have withheld state funds for students in schools who were not admitted legally to the country. The decision noted that “the deprivation of education takes an inestimable toll on the social, economic, intellectual, and psychological well-being of the individual….”

The decision still holds today, ensuring equal access to schools for all residents. 

In 2004, police stopped three undocumented students on school grounds in Albuquerque, N.M., with no particular criminal investigation under way. They then turned the students over to immigration officials. A lawsuit on behalf of the students won widespread changes to school and police policies that have become a model for more recent district policies.

New York took the issue statewide recently, with the commissioner of education sending a letter to schools affirming that “our classrooms must remain safe havens for all children.” States and districts can create privacy policies that go beyond what federal laws require of schools, for instance, Hanson says.

But the issue has at times pitted state lawmakers and governors against local jurisdictions.

Maryland rape case

Starkly different perceptions of safety have come to the surface most forcefully in Montgomery County, Md., where two students were recently arrested on charges of raping a fellow student at Rockville High School.

Various media reports note that one of the accused was a native of Guatemala, had been stopped for entering the US illegally, and had been released to family pending a hearing, which happens routinely. The other accused student has reportedly been in the US less than a year, but ICE would not comment on his status because he is a minor, the Associated Press reports.

Standing outside a meeting at the school, supporters of tougher immigration policies held signs reading “Safety, not Sanctuary,” and “Protect our girls.” White House press secretary Sean Spicer referred to the incident during a press conference, saying, “Part of the reason that the president has made illegal immigration and crackdown such a big deal is because of tragedies like this.”

Inside that meeting with parents and community members, Superintendent Jack Smith urged people not to conflate the issues, noting that some hateful anti-immigrant communications and threats had come in to the district. “This event cannot become the defining event of Montgomery public schools…. It doesn’t define how we think about people who don’t speak English as their first language. It doesn’t define how we think about students who are here with a variety of … documentation and no documentation.”

With some media figures publicly wondering why the 17- and 18-year-old boys were in the school to begin with, Montgomery County school officials found themselves having to explain basic federal and state laws that mandate serving all students in Maryland up to age 21 without seeking information about immigration status.

This all played out as the Maryland House passed a state sanctuary bill, which Gov. Larry Hogan (R) promptly vowed to veto, saying it would “endanger our citizens.”

Schools are in “a legal conundrum,” Mr. Dane of FAIR says. “Schools have an obligation to give every kid – including illegal aliens whose criminal histories might be unknown – a public education. But on the other hand, they’ve got a moral obligation to protect their students.”

Advocates for policies that allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the US and gain legal status say that to focus on such a heinous act creates unfair generalizations. “There’s a horrific incident that the anti-immigrant advocates seize upon to then cast all immigrants in a bad light. [It is] racist. The person is not committing that crime because they are an immigrant,” Ms. Hanson says.

No to safe zones

Some school boards – in Irving, Texas, for example, have voted down safe-zone proposals for immigrants, saying they don’t add any substantive policies or they unnecessarily expose the district to the threat of losing funding.

The Miami-Dade County School Board recently passed a measure to reaffirm and possibly strengthen its safe-haven policies for immigrant families. Ten-year-old Jasmine, whose father is undocumented and whose mother is part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, added her voice to the many who spoke in favor of the measure.

“I told the board that it is very important that they have sanctuary schools because they have to protect students [and] parents,” she told the Monitor in a phone interview.