Recent Department of Homeland Security (DHS) arrests in schools have rattled communities, prompting local leaders to speak out. Just last week in New York City, a federal immigration officer showed up at a Queens elementary school looking for a fourth-grader. Fortunately, in March Mayor De Blasio instituted a policy in the city preventing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents from entering school buildings without warrants, allowing the Queens school to turn away the agents.
While DHS guidance discourages immigration enforcement in “sensitive locations” like schools and hospitals, these invasions have many worried. If we want students to continue to view community institutions as places that help rather than harm, we must ensure that they are never sites of immigration enforcement.
As a teacher in East Boston, I work with immigrant students—many of whom are undocumented—and some of whom come to school carrying past traumas. My students may not all be refugees, but many have fled their country of origin. These families don’t move to the U.S. on a whim; often it’s a life or death situation. Gangs have used students as runners. They have sobbed telling me the horrors they have endured. I have worked with a student who was shot on their journey to the U.S. and had to seek care from peers in unsanitary conditions, and I have had students that have been subjected to extreme acts of violence which resulted in them leaving their home, family and country behind.
For students with interrupted or no formal education, school can be both a steadying presence and place to access much needed resources. For my students, and for many students across our country, school must remain a place safe from fear.
My colleagues and I work hard to ensure that our school has a safe and inclusive culture. Students must first feel secure before they are ready to learn. We celebrate differences in our classrooms and provide additional interventions for students struggling with mental and emotional health issues. One way I do this is through literature. I expose my students to characters in literature that have faced great challenges, similar to theirs, in order to help students understand they are not alone, even though they may feel that way.
My students also know they can use a nonverbal sign to signal that they are feeling overwhelmed, out of control, need a break or assistance. My colleagues and I continue to learn new approaches to ensure our school has a caring environment that affirms the identities of all students and meets their needs.
Since DHS established guidance advising against immigration related arrests and surveillance in sensitive locations, we have been able to maintain this environment. Following months of anti-immigrant rhetoric, my students came to school the day after the presidential election wary, confused and scared for what the new administration had in store for them and their families. That day, I told them, “You are safe here.” I hope it helped them feel better, but I worry this isn’t true anymore.
If we allow immigration enforcement activities in or near our schools, we may jeopardize the security that teachers work so hard to create.
If students are subject to surveillance or if parents are detained while dropping off children—as happened recently in Denver—students will lose out on learning. Not only will many lose focus as they grapple with anxiety, some will stop coming to school. Research shows that when immigration raids increase, so does absenteeism. Families fearing deportation can become de facto prisoners in their own community, afraid to go to schools, churches, community centers and hospitals, as each trip outside their home could have grave consequences. And, what lessons are we sending children when we discourage them from going to school and engaging with the community?
Teachers also need to feel safe. Worrying about agents disrupting class and arresting my students compromises my focus. How do you teach 30 12 year olds to read when you are preoccupied with their safety?
DHS’s guidance gave me peace of mind in the past, but this year it has not prevented an alarming uptick in detentions and arrests of undocumented immigrants—and, some of them have taken place in sensitive locations. According to The Washington Post, authorities made 5,441 immigration arrests of non-criminals from January 20 to March 13 of this year. When deportation decisions destabilize communities, immigration policy becomes education policy.
It is imperative that DHS uphold this guidance and hold their agents accountable. We must enshrine the rules for sensitive locations in legislation. Our elected leaders should speak up when DHS oversteps its boundaries and consider the BRIDGE Act—legislation which would defer immigration action for undocumented students for an additional three years. And all educators should continue to work to make their classroom spaces as safe as possible for all students.