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Pre-Inauguration, California Districts Declare Sanctuary Schools

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Oakland Unified students speak at a board meeting calling for a strong sanctuary resolution. (Courtesy of Parents United for Public Schools)

At their neighborhood park in Oakland, Marina Morales and her 5-year-old daughter, Ruby, look for water insects in the creek and then test the bells on a playground structure.

Ruby is a typical kindergartner: She’s curious about everything. After the election, Morales says her daughter had a lot of questions for her about whether President-elect Donald Trump could do anything to separate their family. Ruby was born here and is a U.S. citizen. But her mother is from Guatemala and has been living in California for nine years without immigration documents.

Morales says when she dropped her daughter off at school the day after the November election, it was clear a lot of families were worried, especially since the president-elect made promises to deport thousands of undocumented immigrants and ban some Muslims from entering the country.

"The day after the election, at school, everyone was quiet," said Morales in Spanish. "No one talked. Everyone was sad. And a lot of people didn’t go to school."

Oakland Unified Board of Education member Shanthi Gonzales says that’s true.


"Students did not come to school out of fear. And the students who did come to school were in tears. Teachers have reported to me that they had some of the most poignant conversations of their entire careers with students that day," Gonzales said.

Gonzales was one of two school board members who sponsored a resolution that Oakland public schools are sanctuaries for immigrant and Muslim families. School districts up and down California, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento, have passed similar resolutions declaring that they will do everything legally possible to protect families and students from immigration enforcement actions on their campuses.

"If students don’t feel safe, they can’t learn," Gonzales said. "This is what we felt we needed to do to make sure that our families got a clear message from us that our priority is not going to be on deportation and persecuting Muslim families. It would be on protecting them."

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials said in a written statement that “concerns about possible ... ICE operations occurring on school property are unfounded" and that their policy is not to carry out enforcement actions at schools or churches, unless there is an emergency, such as a risk to human life.

Oakland’s resolution says the district won’t release student information to federal officials unless they have to by law. And they will notify local legal aid groups if immigration authorities request to visit a school. In addition, the district reinforced an existing policy that requires school personnel to make every effort to notify parents and allow parents to be present if a student is questioned by law enforcement.

The resolution also says that if the new administration repeals DACA, President Obama’s executive action giving temporary work permits to young people who came to the U.S. as children, the district will work to help protect students and employees whose information has been collected.

Gonzales acknowledges there is some concern that the district could risk losing federal funding. President-elect Trump has said he would take federal money away from cities with sanctuary policies. He has not said whether he would do so with schools.

"It’s possible, but it certainly seems that would be not only illegal but also politically un-savvy to take that step," said Sylvia Torres-Guillén, director of educational equity for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California. "Certainly if there were efforts to do so, we would immediately look at any potential litigation to counter that."

Torres-Guillén points to a Supreme Court ruling that all children have the right to attend school, no matter their immigration status, and California law, which requires schools to be safe places free of discrimination or harassment for all students. In December, the ACLU sent a letter to all superintendents in the state urging them to pass sanctuary resolutions and review their policies on sharing student information.

Oakland mom Marina Morales says the fact that families from many different backgrounds came out to support the resolution gave her some hope.

"We need our children to be safe and calm, because this affected them, too," said Morales. "It gives me reassurance as a parent, and I can transmit that to my daughter, so it doesn’t affect her learning."

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