When Donald J. Trump became president, Félix (who did not want to reveal his last name for safety reasons) remembers it was one of the most emotional moments of his young life.
“I remember thinking: How could the man who has said so many bad things about immigrants get elected as president? Then I started to worry about my parents and my friends at school,” he said during an interview at Luther Burbank High School in South Sacramento.
Félix, 15, said Trump’s constant negative rhetoric against undocumented immigrants is causing widespread fear at home and among his friends, especially from those who do not have legal status.
“It isn’t fair. So many students are scared about coming to school and it isn’t supposed to be like that. They are supposed to be happy and excited to come to school,” said Felix as he burst into tears.
Félix’s parents came from their native México as immigrants to provide him, and his siblings, opportunities for a better future. But, the president’s constant rhetoric against undocumented immigrants is causing havoc and fear on school campuses.
“Trump’s threats of deportation are sending shock waves throughout our district and our students are living in a constant state of fear. They cannot learn in an environment when they are suffering from these emotions and the very real anxiety of being deported,” said Jessie Ryan, Sacramento Unified School District first vice president.
To ease the worries of students and their families, the Sacramento Unified School District launched the first of its kind campaign last week titled “Safe Haven” in an effort to protect undocumented students and promote unity and inclusion at all of their school sites.
Last week, Fresno Unified, the state’s fourth-largest school district, adopted a similar resolution.
The campaign aims to open up school sites to legal professionals, hang up colorful banners and lawn signs that read ‘Safe Haven: All Students Welcome’ in several languages, including Spanish and Hmong, and distribute tens of thousands of ‘know your rights’ and ‘safe haven’ pledge cards to students, parents and teachers in the district. The goal is to reassure immigrant families and their children that school is a safe place, regardless of a students immigration status.
There is a lot of fearmongering and too much talk about deportations and we want to make students and their families, especially those who are immigrants or who are undocumented know that their school is a resource for them.
Assemblymember Jim Cooper
“This campaign is about teaching students what their legal rights are and to reiterate to them, that they should feel safe. In our district, they are protected from deportation or any other threat on any of our school campus, at all times,” said José Banda, Superintendent for Sacramento City Unified School District.
Assemblymember Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, said one of the most important reasons for launching the campaign is because there is too much misinformation circulating among different diverse communities as well as on social media that is causing great distress among students and their families across the district.
“There is a lot of fearmongering and too much talk about deportations and we want to make students and their families, especially those who are immigrants or who are undocumented know that their school is a resource for them,” said Cooper.
The ‘Safe Haven’ campaign follows a resolution (No. 2915) that was passed unanimously by the Sacramento County Unified School District last December that directs the superintendent to support the creation of a Safe Haven district that included compliance with a 2011 federal policy that immigration enforcement officials could not enter district campuses or facilities without prior written approval from the Superintendent. The resolution also restricts the sharing of student files that can be used to determine a student’s immigration status.
The district was one of the first in the state to adopt the Safe Haven policy, which has been applauded by leaders like State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson as a model for the rest of California.
“This resolution sent a strong message up and down the state that if federal immigration officials try to come on to our schools or use our data to target undocumented students and their families, we will take proactive measures to protect them,” said Ryan.
In the resolution, the district outlined its commitments including the success of all students irrespective of their immigration status, ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, ability, sex and gender identity, socio-economic status or beliefs.
For many teachers across the district, the campaign is imperative, given the large number of students and their families who have expressed grave concerns over their immigration status or the threat of possible deportations occurring on a school campus.
“I can’t tell you the number of students who have come to me, crying and helpless because they have friends who have lost a parent, relative or another friend to deportation. I have young children telling me they are worried they will be pulled out of a classroom and be deported because they weren’t born in this country. It breaks my heart,” said Elizabeth Villanueva, a teacher at the school district.
One important aspect of the campaign is to reassure undocumented students, or DREAMers, that their immigration status is irrelevant in a school environment that wants to see them succeed, study, learn and thrive.
“We need to humanize the debate about deportations and realize that at the end of the day, these students and their families are human beings. No learning can happen when students are feeling negative emotions,” said Villanueva.
In the district, many teachers are protected under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA, policy. The policy allows certain undocumented residents who came to the United States as children to receive deferred action from deportation for renewable periods of two years and to apply for work permits. A teacher under the plan was scheduled to speak at last week’s press conference but decided not to after several DACA recipients who have been outspoken against Trump’s policies and rhetoric to the media, have been reported to be detained by ICE officials.
According to the University of California, Los Ángeles’ City Rights Project, Sacramento is the most racially/ethnically integrated major city in the United States and the Sacramento City Unified School District is the most integrated large public school district in the state.
Nearly 48 different languages are spoken in Sacramento City Unified School District schools including Spanish, Hmong, Armenian, Korean, Tagalog, Cantonese, Arabic, Vietnamese and Russian. Out of the 43,082 students in Sacramento City Unified, approximately 17,104 are of Latino/a descent and 34,896 are students of color and more than 64 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Trump’s revamped deportation policies are expected to affect nearly 1 out of every 5 students in the district.
The presidential election resulted in thousands of students and families in Sacramento expressing fear, sadness and concerns for student safety, heightened because of intolerant rhetoric made over the course of the 2016 presidential race. Creating a safe haven isn’t the only important task the district will implement, but also crack down on bullying, which they have also seen a slight rise throughout the district.
“We have certainly had cases of students telling district officials or their teachers that some students have told them that they need to leave and that they don’t belong here and we do not tolerate that or any other kind of bullying. Our schools have zero tolerance for bullying and those complaints are taken very seriously,” said Ryan.
Currently, the Sacramento Unified School District has a full-time bullying specialist that is unique to the district and will focus on such instances of this type of bullying among students.
On immigration matters, the district does not keep record of a students’ immigration status and to date, they do not have any reports of a student being deported on any of their campuses.
Still, district officials and community leaders want to ensure they are taking every precaution and reasonable step to ensure their students and their families feel safe at all times.
“We are facing scary and unprecedented times. It is heart-breaking to see everything that is happening nationally but how we choose to respond is key moving forward,” said Ryan.
On April 22, a presentation on immigrants rights and a panel discussion will be held from 10 a.m. to noon at the Serna Center, 5735 47th Ave in Sacramento. It is open to the public and free of charge. District officials say students and their families who seek help or assistance should not hesitate to contact their school district.
“Most schools are community-based, meaning, parents get a lot of their information from their children and what happens at schools. We want all families to know that our schools are safe and that their immigration status is safe and if they need any kind of assistance, we are here to help,” said Ryan.
Fresno Unified adopts Safe Place resolution
Despite outrage against the school district getting involved in the immigration debate heard on local radio talk show, the Fresno Unified School District wasted little time – in fact, 22 minutes of public testimony from 17 people was followed by 20 minutes of trustee discussion and a 7-0 vote – in adopting a Safe Place School District resolution on March 8.
The vote was unanimous.
Resolution No. 16-14 designates district sites, facilities and equipment as safe places for students, families and the community.
It also instructs the district not to participate in any immigration enforcement activities at school sites; not release a student to federal immigration agents without the consent of the child’s parent or guardian; and not have school resource officers enforce violations of immigration law.
It also instructs the district to work with community-based organizations.
“We can do a little more to help our students and our friends,” said trustee Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas, who worked with colleagues Claudia Cázares and Valerie Davis to craft the resolution.
Cázares said the resolution was crafted for “our children.”
“This is not an adult resolution; this is not a political resolution,” said Cázares. “This was something that was long needed.”
Cázares and other trustees said that children “are living in fear” following stepped-up enforcement of federal immigration laws. She said that if her 8-year-old son, who was born in Clovis, is fearful of deportation, then more vulnerable students must be suffering.
Board president Brooke Ashjian was a surprise yes vote after having told The Fresno Bee editorial board in a recent meeting that the school district should not be in the immigration business and is powerless to prevent federal immigration agents from entering school property.
“I’ve always believed that life begins at conception, and I don’t believe it ends at legal or illegal status,” said Ashjian before the board’s unanimous vote.
Trustee Christopher De La Cerda expressed 100 percent support for the resolution.
“We have a moral obligation to protect our kids,” he said.