Colorado Springs schools deal with fears over immigration

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Uncertainty surrounding U.S. immigration and deportation practices under President Donald Trump has some wondering where public schools fit into the debate.

"The country's changing from maybe not enforcing our immigration law to a pretty vigorous enforcement, and I think it's best public school districts remain quiet and see how things work out," said Ryan Thompson, a parent of a student in Harrison School District 2.

Educators say some students, parents and even staff are scared, if not for themselves then about relatives or friends who don't have legal status, and bring up the topic at school.

"It's a fear that is very real," said Luis Antezana, an English teacher at Harrison High School. "Everyone is hearing the stories — documented students being detained although they're not supposed to be, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) knocking on friends' doors, the anti-immigrant rhetoric and attitude that undocumented means 'evil.'"

Some laws are clear about what public schools can and cannot do; others have more shades of gray.

Public schools legally cannot deny access to public education, whether a student or parent is residing here legally or not.

Under a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Plyler vs. Doe, K-12 public institutions are not allowed to ask for the documentation status of any child.

Thus, no statistics are kept on how many undocumented children attend Colorado's public schools, said Colorado Department of Education spokesman Jeremy Meyer.

Birth certificates are requested at school enrollment to verify that students live with authorized parents or guardians, said Devra Ashby, spokeswoman for Colorado Springs School District 11. But, "We're not looking for status of citizenship," she said.

The requirement can be met with custodial paperwork or signed affidavits instead of birth certificates, she said.

Public schools also cannot give legal advice or stand in the way of law enforcement, and have to remain politically unbiased, Ashby said.

What's not set in stone is how schools or students respond to the political climate.

Across the nation, school leaders, teachers' unions, school boards and educators have voiced opposition to President Trump's executive orders on immigration. Many have pledged to protect students from deportation and harassment. Whether that's within their bailiwick is a point of disagreement.

On Nov. 14, Harrison School District 2 sent home a letter with its 11,800 students from Superintendent Andre Spencer, who said, "Issues surrounding immigration, civil rights, human rights and racial inequalities resonate strongly within our diverse student population." The letter provided a list of local resources.

A second, similar letter went out to D-2 parents last month, beginning with the statement, "The purpose of this letter is humanitarian, not political."

Local agencies listed as resources in the second letter included the Colorado Immigration Rights Coalition, Catholic Charities of Central Colorado and Inside/Out Youth Services for LGBTQ adolescents.

Harrison D-2 board member Eileen Gonzalez said the letter from Spencer speaks for itself.

"His first concern is for the scholars he's responsible for," she said. "It is not a political statement of any kind."

Gonzalez said the board is not considering any other action or declaration regarding immigration.

The letter was not prompted by a single event, Spencer said in a statement, but by concerns. It was intended to "highlight that all students, staff and families would be safe and supported in our schools," he said.

Harrison parent Thompson said he doesn't think it's the job of public school administrators to "comfort illegal immigrants."

"People are raising an eyebrow about this," he said.

Spencer's Feb. 22 letter states, "Our desire is to provide schools that are safe spaces where a scholar's race, ethnicity, religion and immigration status do not create any barriers to that scholar's education."

Thompson said, "It's a reasonable expectation that the school district should report any known crime to law enforcement, and this seems to be saying they're shielding immigration status."

Christine O'Brien, D-2 spokeswoman, said the letter was to "confirm that we support our students and our schools are going to be a safe and respectful place where we value diversity."

Thompson said he's concerned that immigrants violating U.S. laws are being allowed into schools and working as volunteers, for example.

"Are we inviting them into our buildings and just ignoring the fact that they are known criminals? A school district is not going to do that with any other criminals," he said. "That can be worrisome. Some are very good people, and some we just don't know."

Thompson also wonders if incidents of violence among Harrison students in the past two years, including stabbings at a middle school and high school, and a cluster of fights that happened in one day at a high school, can be attributed to racial tensions.

In at least one of the cases, "There's a possibility that a person involved had immigration problems," Thompson said, "but we as parents don't know."

OUT OF THE SHADOWS

Harrison D-2 is the most racially and ethnically diverse school district in the Pikes Peak region, with 75 percent of this year's student body listed as minorities.

A few weeks ago, Harrison High School hosted an event, "Stepping Out of the Shadows," in which 20 students talked about their experiences as immigrants, refugees or lesbians, gays, bisexuals or transgenders.

About 300 students and staff attended the event, which was held during school hours.

Students shared their present fears and future hopes.

"They were stepping out of the shadows and showing that it's part of their identity, it's who they are, and the struggles they face coming from those identities," said Antezana, who organized the event.

Antezana teaches English Language Learners at Harrison and helps socio-economically challenged students get to college.

He grew up undocumented.

"I didn't know I was undocumented until my senior year in high school. I felt like a truck blindsided me," Antezana said. "I felt like I was alone in the world. It was a very dark time for me."

Antezana now is allowed to live and work in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy the Obama administration started in 2012, allowing certain undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors to receive a renewable deferment from deportation.

He said the support he received inspired him to move on, get a scholarship, attend college and become a teacher.

Because of his background, Antezana says he can relate to the anxiety some students are feeling. He formed a Dreamers Club to "create a safe space for undocumented students." About half of the club members are legal citizens and half are not.

Some were born in the U.S. to undocumented parents and are worried that their families will be separated.

"What I was proud to hear was that so much adversity came across in every story, but in the end, they continue to persevere," Antezana said of the event at Harrison High. "That was inspiring to hear."

Harrison High School junior Carlos Cielo talked about his family's journey of leaving Mexico and seeking opportunity in the United States.

"No matter what the politics, no matter the color, race, gender or ethnicity, in the end it comes down to we're all humanity and should respect everyone's ideas," he said.

His family was deported and then returned to the U.S. several years ago. There's no comparison, he said. In Mexico, he would go without food at school, he said, and wore torn shoes and clothing.

"My parents knew I had something to contribute, and they wanted to give me everything," said Cielo, a varsity soccer player who wants to study aerospace engineering in college.

Cielo is a U.S. citizen because he was born here. He thinks no one should face the fear of deportation.

"It's really scary to think about a family being split up," he said. "There are people who don't respect the laws, but the large majority just want to work and give to the economy and pay taxes. The entire community shouldn't be judged by the acts of a few."

Antezana said he understands the argument that the United States has laws that should be followed.

"Laws are important. They hold up our institutions and make our country what it has become," he said. "Laws, like humans, have their flaws and are constantly changing and need to be improved. I think that has to happen with the current immigration system. I truly believe it is broken."

Thompson said, like others, he wants the immigration laws that are on the books to be adhered to and enforced.

"This is a really complex issue," he said. "I'm concerned about this and would like to see people look into it and take it seriously. It is a problem."

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Information from: The Gazette, http://www.gazette.com


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