Equity & Diversity

How Much Can Schools Protect Undocumented Students?

By Corey Mitchell — February 27, 2017 4 min read

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.

See Also

Undocumented Teachers Shielded by DACA in Legal and Emotional Limbo

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?

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
How Schools Can Implement Safe In-Person Learning
In order for in-person schooling to resume, it will be necessary to instill a sense of confidence that it is safe to return. BD is hosting a virtual panel discussing the benefits of asymptomatic screening
Content provided by BD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
How Districts Are Centering Relationships and Systemic SEL for Back to School 21-22
As educators and leaders consider how SEL fits into their reopening and back-to-school plans, it must go beyond an SEL curriculum. SEL is part of who we are as educators and students, as well as
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
The Fall K-3 Classroom: What the data imply about composition, challenges and opportunities
The data tracking learning loss among the nation’s schoolchildren confirms that things are bad and getting worse. The data also tells another story — one with serious implications for the hoped for learning recovery initiatives
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity Minn. Students Walk Out of Class to Protest Racial Injustice
Students from dozens of schools walked out of class in a coordinated protest against racial injustice and the killing of Daunte Wright.
Erin Golden, Star Tribune
5 min read
Kekai Andrade, of Grand Rapids, takes part in a Justice for Daunte Wright rally in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., on April 16, 2021.
Kekai Andrade, of Grand Rapids, takes part in a Justice for Daunte Wright rally in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., on April 16, 2021.
Cory Morse/The Grand Rapids Press via AP
Equity & Diversity 16 Resources on Talking to Students About Police Killings and Racism
To help educators discuss racism and police shootings of people of color, Education Week has compiled videos, articles, essays, and more.
2 min read
A demonstrator holds a sign along a perimeter fence guarded by law enforcement officers during a protest over Sunday's fatal shooting of Daunte Wright during a traffic stop, outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department, on April 14, 2021, in Brooklyn Center, Minn. At right on the fence is an image of George Floyd.
A demonstrator holds a sign during a protest over the fatal police shooting this month of Daunte Wright, 20, during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minn.
John Minchillo/AP
Equity & Diversity Opinion 'We All Have LGBTQ Students, Whether We Know It or Not'
Three educators provide suggestions to support LGBTQ students, including respecting pronouns and having LGBTQ authors in classroom libraries.
11 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Equity & Diversity Opinion Strategies for Supporting LGBTQ Students
Three educators share ways to help LGBTQ students.
10 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty