Public Schools: The New Immigration Sanctuaries?

Public Schools: The New Immigration Sanctuaries?

An immigration issues mural in Cicero, Illinois, outside of Chicago.

SourceDiana Mulvihill for OZY

Why you should care

Because as safe zones face greater scrutiny from Trump, some worry they paint a target.

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It was an unseasonably warm February day when dozens of Chicago parents gathered in front of a brownstone school with a backstory as complicated as their cause. Funston Elementary is named for Fighting Fred Funston, an American soldier who joined the Cuban Revolutionary Army, to fight against Spain, in 1896; two years later, he led American troops in the Spanish-American War. On this day, the namesake school served as the staging ground for a different type of revolution — one launched against an immigration crackdown coming from Washington, D.C.

Declaring the school a “sanctuary” for the undocumented, the residents in this mostly Hispanic neighborhood emblazoned the grade school and eight others like it with a yellow monarch butterfly to signify it as a place where students and families could come for information and protection. “Many families felt like they were in the dark. We have to make sure that schools are the light for the whole community,” says Leticia Barrera, an education organizer with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, which planned the event.

Sanctuaries are likely to face more scrutiny in the months ahead, which may explain why some schools are loath to paint themselves a target.

Across America, the idea of sanctuary cities and campuses is hardly new. But now the phenomenon has trickled down to the K-12 level, a part of the educational system that typically has been a safe space … from political stagecraft. Shortly after Donald Trump was elected president in November, more than 120 advocacy groups urged the state of California not to comply with federal authorities on immigration raids and deportations; school districts from Sacramento to Oakland to Los Angeles passed similar resolutions prior to Trump’s inauguration in January. Educators from Pittsburgh to Des Moines, Iowa, followed suit, declaring themselves sanctuaries as well.

What those designations actually mean is ambiguous. Some districts say they won’t assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents; others merely express support for their immigrant communities, touting ill-defined parameters for defiance. Still, many appear redundant. Chicago already considers itself a sanctuary city, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel leading a task force to help undocumented immigrants and pledging $1 million to a legal defense fund, which raises the question of why city classrooms are doubling down. Advocates say the status helps schools maximize their role as community hubs, becoming central locations for organizing and education efforts. “All of this is still a process,” remarks Barrera, although her organization already is leading immigration law workshops for teachers, rallying other school councils to join its cause and compiling an emergency action plan, which would be posted in every sanctuary school as a last-ditch lifeline for families under duress.

And the movement is growing more diverse in its protections. Look no further than Hamtramck, Michigan. Once called “Little Warsaw,” the tiny city within Detroit long boasted a Polish population so large that in 1987, Pope John Paul II, born Karol Wojtyla in Poland, visited. A statue and a mural commemorate the papal visit, although these days the mural depicting white Poles at play seems out of place. An influx of immigrants, especially from Yemen, Bangladesh and Bosnia, has dramatically transformed the city’s demographics over the past three decades, turning Hamtramck into the nation’s first Muslim-majority city, in 2013. Hamtramck schools, where hijabs are about as common in classrooms as hair ties, have been designated safe havens. The term carries little legal weight, education officials admit, but they say it prepares a framework for assisting at-risk students.

As more schools declare themselves sanctuaries, other districts have grappled with difficult trade-offs. Their hesitance begins with a fear that outing themselves will hurt, not help, their most vulnerable residents. States with large Hispanic populations, like California and Nevada, may feel extra pressure to publicly back their concerned communities, but not every immigrant-heavy jurisdiction benefits, says Sally Howell, director of the Center for Arab American Studies at the University of Michigan in Dearborn, another Detroit-area city where almost half of the residents are Muslim. In Hamtramck, a newer community whose mostly Middle Eastern and African immigrants come with legal visas, the decision to create sanctuary schools is “a symbolic gesture,” with little at stake, Howell says — even with Trump’s travel ban on six Muslim-majority nations, including Yemen. But, Howell adds, Dearborn, a longer-entrenched community with more monetary and political capital to lose, has less incentive to adopt a bull’s-eye unwittingly. “The truth is we’ve been doing it all along with no consequence,” says Dearborn mayor Jack O’Reilly, asserting that most local protections are already in place, sanctuary or not.

Sanctuaries are likely to face more scrutiny in the months ahead, which may explain why some schools are loath to paint themselves a target. Last week, the Department of Homeland Security released a report naming jurisdictions that refused to detain immigrants for federal deportation, the first in a series mandated by an executive order Trump signed in February. “When law enforcement agencies fail to honor immigration detainers and release serious criminal offenders, it undermines ICE’s ability to protect the public safety,” Thomas Homan, acting director of ICE, said in a statement. In late January, another Trump order called for ICE to hire 10,000 additional immigration officers and to withhold federal money from so-called sanctuary jurisdictions. The latter directive’s constitutionality is being contested in court.

Yet even with those decisions looming, interest in creating sanctuaries is booming. In Chicago, Barrera says support has outstripped capacity, and she’s been swept up in a deluge of phone calls from other schools, nonprofits and activists looking to get involved across the notoriously neighborhood-centric Windy City. “We don’t have the capacity to be in every place,” she says. At the rate sanctuary schools are popping up, they likely won’t have to.

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