School Settings Are Sensitive Locations That Should Be Off-Limits to Immigration Enforcement

School Settings Are Sensitive Locations That Should Be Off-Limits to Immigration Enforcement

By Jessica Hanson, NILC Skadden Fellow
May 4, 2017

Earlier in this blog series we explored how the current political environment is affecting immigrants in the workplace and immigrants’ access to health care facilities. Today we focus on immigrants’ concerns about sending or taking their kids to school.

It goes without saying that education is a core value for most Americans. Schools should be havens where children learn the basic academic, social, and other skills they need to function effectively in society. Indeed, as the Supreme Court said 35 years ago in the landmark case Plyler v. Doe, “By denying … children a basic education, we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions, and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our Nation.”

Schools are also gathering places and resource hubs for communities that may not have access to those resources elsewhere. Not only do parents and family members drop their children off at schools in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon, but they also come to school to attend events and learn important information relevant to themselves or their children. For these reasons, chilling access to schools has a deeply negative impact not only on the directly affected individuals and families, but also on the wider community.

The federal executive branch used to recognize the critical and sensitive nature of access to education. In various iterations of guidance dating back to 1993, immigration enforcement authorities have recognized schools as “sensitive locations” where no immigration enforcement activity should take place except with certain rare exceptions. Unfortunately, this guidance does not carry the weight of law, so it’s not enforceable against the agencies that are supposed to follow it.

Since Donald Trump was elected president, advocates have wondered whether the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “Sensitive Locations” memo, last published in 2011, would be rescinded. To date, it has not been. But though the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) insists that it is still following the policies laid out in the memo, its agents recently have conducted enforcement activities that blatantly violate the memo’s letter and spirit.

One such incident occurred on February 28—at a school. ICE officers detained Romulo Avelica Gonzalez as he was dropping one of his four children off at school in Los Angeles. His 13-year-old daughter, who was still in the car with his wife, sobbed while watching her father being physically restrained. The collective trauma the incident caused that school’s other students was so great that the school’s leadership called an assembly of the entire student body to reflect on the incident, attempt to assuage fears, and encourage students to make a safety plan with their families.

Mr. Avelica Gonzalez’s arrest has sparked new fears in parents about whether they can safely bring their children to school, or whether it would be best to keep the kids at home, where they’ll be secure. This chilling of access to school for the children of immigrant families is a travesty and a shame.

In response, many schools across the country—both K-12 and postsecondary schools—have passed “sanctuary,” “safe zone,” or “welcoming” resolutions. Such a resolution states that the school will not allow federal immigration enforcement officers on the school site unless the officers have a valid criminal warrant and complete an established process to verify that warrant with the school’s legal counsel. The resolutions address a variety of issues, including physical access to schools, sharing of students’ or families’ personal information, campus police or security engagement in immigration enforcement efforts, and resource centers for immigrant families. The successful implementation of these measures shows that some schools are doing everything in their power to ensure students’ constitutional rights are not violated and that schools are a place for learning, not immigration enforcement.

However, a school’s authority in such matters is limited. For example, ICE arrested Mr. Avelica Gonzalez just as he was leaving school after dropping off one child and on his way to drop his other child off at another school. To ensure that schools are truly safe spaces for students and their families, local, state, and federal elected officials need to pass concrete, enforceable legislation that prevents this kind of child-drop-off/ICE-pick-up enforcement tactic. On April 5, 2017, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced the Protecting Sensitive Locations Act (S.845), which, if passed, would designate any space within 1,000 feet of schools and certain other locations as “sensitive locations” where immigration enforcement activity may not be carried out absent certain limited circumstances.

This bill is just a start; there’s much more to be done, because there’s so much at stake. When school is no longer a place to learn, but instead a place to fear, the education, mental health, and promise of our next generation are threatened. We have already seen immigration enforcement tactics change and become more aggressive under President Trump. We deserve concrete, clearly defined, and enforceable protections to ensure that students of all ages feel safe attending school, that parents are not targeted when they are transporting children to and from school, and that schools are truly places for students to learn, grow, thrive, and be supported as they complete their education.