Equity & Diversity

How Much Can Schools Protect Undocumented Students?

By Corey Mitchell — February 27, 2017 4 min read
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As the Trump administration aggressively ramps up deportations of undocumented immigrants, some K-12 leaders have pledged to protect the rights and privacy of students who don’t have legal immigration status. Some vow schools are “sanctuaries” where educators won’t cooperate with authorities to identify or take action against undocumented students and families. But the fast-moving, politically charged situation has also created confusion for educators about what they can and can’t do.

What are “sanctuary” schools?

The phrase is a bit of a misnomer. Resolutions passed by school boards in three so-called sanctuary districts—Clark County, Nev., Los Angeles Unified, and Pittsburgh—don’t even include the word. The resolutions refer to school grounds as “safe” places, spaces, or zones for students, staff, and parents regardless of immigration status. The policies in most districts affirm that schools will do everything within their legal power to protect student privacy, including barring the release of information about immigration status unless there is parental consent, or if federal agents produce a warrant, subpoena, or similar court order.

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What else can schools do to protect the rights of undocumented students?

Schools must balance two sometimes dueling obligations: ensuring student safety and privacy and cooperation with federal officials as required by law. Lawyers say schools can accomplish those goals by limiting immigration authorities’ access to campuses and providing information to families on their rights under district and federal policies.

Lawyers for both immigrant advocacy groups and school systems acknowledge that families may view the word “sanctuary” literally and overestimate the legal protections afforded to them in schools. When agents want access to a campus or information on students, for example, the resolutions in Clark County, L.A. Unified, and Pittsburgh require the requests to go through a superintendent’s office or a district’s legal department. But the resolutions also make clear that campus police will assist federal agents as required by law if called upon to do so.

“ICE is a federal immigration agency and they do have legal authority to enforce immigration law and there could be scenarios where ICE could access campus,” said Jessica Hanson, a lawyer with the National Immigration Law Center.

When are federal immigration agents allowed to approach or question students, staff, or parents on school campuses?

Not often, but it’s permitted when circumstances call for such action. A 2012 Immigration and Customs Enforcement memorandum—known as the “sensitive locations” memo—prohibits agents from conducting enforcement activities on school campuses unless high-ranking federal authorities give prior approval. The memo also allows for agents to make a case that they need urgent access to a school, but oftentimes school officials have standing to push back, said Alyson Sincavage, a lawyer with the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

So, are the “sanctuary” or “safe” school declarations merely symbolic measures?

No, lawyers say, because districts that haven’t passed resolutions may not be aware of the legal protections available to students. Districts that willingly collaborate with immigration officials without court orders, in violation of federal law, leave themselves open to legal challenges.

A case study in what schools should not do took place more than a decade ago in the Albuquerque, N.M., district. In 2004, city police assigned to work in schools called Border Patrol agents, who questioned three students and found out they were undocumented. The Mexican American Legal Defense Fund sued, reaching settlements with the district and city police department on behalf of the students. Albuquerque developed a policy that remains a model and the city’s police department barred its officers from “stopping, questioning, detaining, investigating, or arresting” students younger than 18 on any immigration matter while on or in the vicinity of public school grounds.

Are ICE agents currently arresting students or parents on or near campuses?

Federal officials say no. But undocumented immigrants and advocates are still worried.

Two immigrants were arrested after leaving a church-run shelter in Virginia last month, raising concerns because churches, like schools, funerals, protests, and weddings, are among the “sensitive locations” where agents are supposed to be barred from searching, interviewing or arresting potentially undocumented immigrants.

Amid student and family fears after immigration raids took place last month in neighborhoods near schools, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district in North Carolina issued a statement that schools and bus stops are “at this point considered to be safe from” enforcement activities involving students based on the district’s discussions with federal authorities. However, that same letter reminded families that the district has no power to control or direct the work of any law enforcement agency.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2017 edition of Education Week as Can Schools Offer Sanctuary?

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