Equity & Diversity

Schools Urged to Prepare for Immigration Raids

By Catherine Gewertz — October 27, 2008 4 min read
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School district leaders urged their colleagues last week to make concrete plans for taking care of students whose parents have been picked up in workplace raids by federal immigration agents.

As the federal government focuses on employers who hire large numbers of undocumented immigrants, school districts with large immigrant populations will see more students’ lives disrupted by the sudden disappearance of one or both parents, said superintendents, school board members, and a policy analyst who spoke about the raids at an Oct. 24 panel discussion at the Council of the Great City Schools’ annual conference here.

Rosa Maria Castañeda, a research associate at the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank that co-authored a report last year detailing the impact on children of three large-scale workplace raids, said that when such arrests occur, children often find themselves at school or day care with no one to pick them up, or alone at home with no adult supervision.

They often need psychological as well as material support, she said. If only one parent has been arrested, the other needs help paying bills, securing food stamps, and managing child care, she said. That family destabilization often leads to children’s missing more school, earning worse grades, and misbehaving more, she said.

Ms. Castañeda urged district leaders to forge connections with church and community groups that can help meet the needs of families affected by raids, to draw up lists of resources families might need, and to map out in advance ways they can get resources to students in their homes if necessary. If a large raid occurs in their community, schools could consider holding a news conference to reassure parents that the children are safe, she said.

“Public schools have played a very important role in making sure kids are not left stranded,” said Ms. Castañeda.

Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa noted that one district in Texas grappled with scores of children who lacked adults authorized to pick them up after a large raid in their community. Before the raid, the district’s standard practice was to require each family to have on file the names of two adults authorized to pick up their children. Now it requires each family to provide 10 names, he said.

Ensuring the safety and rights of children whose parents are arrested in workplace raids was the subject of a congressional hearing last May, after an enforcement action in Postville, Iowa, had a profound effect on that town’s school district. (“Iowa School District Left Coping With Immigration Raid’s Impact,” May 21, 2008, and “Immigration Raids’ Impact on Children Focus of Congressional Hearing,” May 20, 2008.)

Federal policies do not expressly bar agents from making campus arrests, but immigration officials have said they generally avoid doing so. (“With Immigrants, Districts Balance Safety, Legalities,” Sept. 12, 2007.)

Children’s Stories

Members of the panel and the audience told stories of what has befallen children touched by the immigration crackdown. One 15-year-old girl in San Francisco found herself alone when her parents were taken into custody. Three children were left in a car on a highway in North Carolina overnight when their mother was arrested. Scores of schoolchildren in Los Angeles are in foster care after more than 400 undocumented workers were picked up there last month.

Yolie Flores Aguilar, a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District board, said the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency told the district’s police force that it would not conduct raids in the schools “because of the political ramifications.” But the “number one fear” of parents she talks to, Ms. Aguilar said, is what would happen to their children if they are arrested by immigration agents.

Carlos A. Garcia, the superintendent of the San Francisco schools, said he believes district leaders must make their schools safe places for immigrant children, regardless of their legal status. San Francisco has been a “sanctuary city” for immigrants since 1989, and its school board issued a policy last year barring immigration and customs-enforcement officials from entering school campuses without the superintendent’s permission.

“We believe they do not have the right to come on our campuses,” Mr. Garcia said. “If that means the superintendent gets hauled off to jail, then I’ll go to jail.”

Members of the panel and the audience discussed the mixed or hostile reactions schools can get from their communities when they advocate for their immigrant students.

Most school and district leaders “know we have a responsibility to these children,” Mr. Hinojosa said. But “if you bring up this topic [in the community], automatic division occurs.”

Despite a 26-year-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling obligating public schools to serve children of any immigration status, Mr. Garcia said, many school employees and community members are confused or torn about their obligations to immigrants.

Superintendents can play a role in building public understanding of the legal obligation to educate all children, he said, adding that the public dialogue need not engage community members’ varying opinions on U.S. immigration policy.

“Our job is not to play politics,” he said. “Our job is to serve children.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 05, 2008 edition of Education Week

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