‘Safe Haven’ Schools Face Limitations in Protecting Immigrant Students

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Spanish teacher Elizabeth Villanueva helps connect immigrant families at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento to resources and immigration attorneys should they face legal action. (Ana Tintocalis/KQED News)

Elizabeth Villanueva is a Spanish teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento. She grew up in Mexico and is now a U.S. citizen.

But her mother crossed the border illegally, which is why this teacher identifies with so many of her students who come from undocumented families.

“They are me, and I am them,” says Villanueva. “I see myself in them. That’s why I want to provide more as a teacher.”

Elizabeth Villanueva speaks to her Spanish class at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento.
Elizabeth Villanueva speaks to her Spanish class at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento. (Ana Tintocalis/KQED)

For the past several years, Villanueva has been helping undocumented families find resources and connect with immigration attorneys.

After President Trump took office and threatened to ramp up deportations, she says her network of immigration attorneys didn’t offer much hope.

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“I realized I had to create a safe place for students in my own classroom so they can be themselves, open up, and be who they are,” she says.

That’s why Villanueva and many other teachers were thankful when Sacramento Unified declared itself a “safe haven” in December.

The distinction means Sacramento public schools will not cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE.

Nearly 60 other California school districts have made a similar pledge -- an action that has been supported and encouraged by State Schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson.

The Sacramento Unified School Districts has declared itself a 'safe haven' for its immigrant families.
The Sacramento Unified School Districts has declared itself a 'safe haven' for its immigrant families. (Ana Tintocalis/KQED News)

Teachers and principals, however, know they can only do so much. Many parents worry about what might happen before or after the school bell rings.

“In a perfect world, we would be able to surround all of our students and families in a bubble,” says Jessie Ryan, Sacramento Unified’s school board vice president, who spearheaded the district’s safe haven campaign. “But we only have control over our space and the confines of our school day.”

Because there are limitations, Sacramento Unified -- and districts across the state -- are now having some very uncomfortable conversations about the worst-case scenario: How schools can support children whose families are deported.

A recent high-profile case in Los Angeles underscores that reality, when ICE arrested an undocumented father taking his daughter to school.

At a contentious town hall forum in Sacramento, ICE Acting Director Tom Homan maintained the agency’s top priority is still deporting undocumented immigrants with criminal histories.

ICE has a policy of avoiding “sensitive locations” like schools, churches and hospitals. However, ICE agents can still legally go on a campus if they have orders to arrest someone.

Homan realizes some families are keeping kids at home out of fear.

“I don’t want children not going to school,” Homan told the angry crowd. “I understand immigration enforcement is a very emotional topic … but we’re law enforcement officers that take a solemn oath to enforce the laws of this country."

Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union of California say schools have more power than they think.

For example, if federal immigration agents do step on campus, they must have a warrant to pull a student or parent from school. They also must have a subpoena if they want student information.

More than 300 people recently attended a rowdy town hall forum in Sacramento where the acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was criticized for his agency's operations.
More than 300 people recently attended a rowdy town hall forum in Sacramento, where the acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was criticized for his agency's operations. (Ana Tintocalis/KQED News)

Even then, school leaders can challenge those legal documents.

“Schools have an obligation to their students,” says Sylvia Torres-Guillen, director of education policy with the ACLU of Southern California. “Parents should not feel there is any danger in sending their children to school, because there are rules federal enforcement officials must follow before doing anything potentially harmful.”

The ACLU is now pushing school districts to adopt policies that spell out what schools can and cannot do.

Just last week, civil rights lawyers identified 75 California school districts that were collecting information about the legal status of their students -- something that is prohibited under law.

For its part, Sacramento Unified is doing what it can to ease fears.

Lawn signs and banners with the slogan "Safe Haven: ALL are welcome here" now greet visitors at every Sacramento campus. School buses also have window stickers. And pocket-size pamphlets have been sent home spelling out the rights of immigrant families.

School officials are holding confidential meetings with parents to encourage them to send their children to school.

Felix, a 15-year-old student, says he now feels safer on campus.

He was born here but other family members are undocumented.

“Even if something bad were to happen, I know I can come here and my teachers would support me and help me through it,” he says.