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New California sanctuary schools coalition is taking an ‘extra step’ to protect undocumented students and their families

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | August 23, 2017

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Ricardo Mireles, executive director of Academia Avance, with high school students at their campus in Highland Park.

There are sanctuary cities, sanctuary states, and school district safe zones. Now a group of Los Angeles public schools and community organizations have created a Sanctuary Schools coalition that guarantees protections for undocumented students and their families through formal school policies.

The new group, California Schools Are Sanctuaries (CASAS), is the first of its kind in the state bringing together leaders from charter and traditional schools as well as civil rights advocates. Its goal is to ensure that these schools are enforcing policies that protect students.

“These are schools that are taking an extra step in protecting immigrant students rather than just saying it. This is an accountability coalition that makes sure they’re doing it,” said Caity Heim, a spokesperson for the California Charter Schools Association.

One of the leaders of the new coalition is Ricardo Mireles, head of the public charter school in Los Angeles where a father was detained as he dropped off his daughter.

The February arrest of Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez was the “ah ha” moment for Mireles, executive director of Academia Avance. That was his motivation to join the head of another Los Angeles charter school group, Semillas Community Schools, in forming the new coalition.

• Read more: As immigrant students worry about a new school year, districts and educators unveil plans to protect their safety (and privacy)

PUC Schools, National Council of La Raza, the California Charter Schools Association, ACLU Southern California, and most recently LA Unified became part of this coalition, which has adopted the ACLU Sanctuary School Toolkit’s policies.

“The No. 1 issue that we have as a school is trust,” Mireles said. “Parents are entrusting us with their kids. It’s our responsibility to do the right thing with that trust, specially in this era. We cannot continue ignoring the immigration issue. We need to address it now. The school has a responsibility to them.”

At Academia Avance, which has about 400 students in a middle and a high school in Highland Park, more than 40 percent of the students live in fear because of their own or their parents’ immigration status, Mireles said.

“We cannot continue acting as if we don’t know or hear about the immigration situation of our students and their families. There are kids right now that do not know they or their parents are undocumented and, guess what, we will find out when they start filling out their FAFSA applications. Why do we have to wait until their senior year?”

He said each year they find out that about 15 percent of their seniors are not citizens when they start applying for college.

LA Unified board President Ref Rodriguez said he believes a comprehensive, intensive approach would work at a school setting like Academia Avance’s where leaders have a close, personal relationship with every family, but maybe not in a school district as big as LA Unified.

“They have a very different relationship with their families than most of LAUSD schools do. First we would have to build that kind of a relationship with parents, and then we can have that open conversation with them,” he told LA School report on Monday. “We can’t help them if we don’t know, but first we need to create that trust. And we need to start doing that at one school, because we cannot wait to start at a big scale.”

Members of CASAS are schools and organizations that support proposed state legislation AB 699, which would prohibit discrimination based on a student’s immigration status or religious beliefs and would provide new protections for students in K-12 public schools.

About 60 schools and county education offices in California have adopted resolutions to protect undocumented students and keep local police or ICE agents away from school campuses, including LA Unified, which this month launched its “We Are One LA Unified” campaign to support immigrant families, with hefty resource guides in English and Spanish.

Spurring many of these resolutions was the arrest of Avelica-González and the video caught by his daughter Fatima, who is a ninth-grader at Academia Avance.

His attorney, Alan Diamante, said his client’s case would not have received so much support from the community if it weren’t for the actions taken by Mireles.

Avelica-González, 49, emigrated to this country 26 years ago from Nayarit, México. He was picked up by ICE agents because had a DUI in 2008 and a conviction for receipt of stolen property after getting a faulty vehicle registration. Both misdemeanors were settled in June.

According to Mireles, Avelica’s legal troubles were compounded because his case was handled by scammers who were not immigration attorneys and only took the Avelica family’s money for years.

“I believe the case of Romulo Avelica is the perfect example of the need to defend due process for immigrant families,” Mireles said. “Our goal as a school is to create a way for our parents to become screeners and start to create a network in Highland Park to avoid scammers.”

Students at Academia Avance also believe they need to continue to act as one family to support not only the Avelica family but also others in similar situation.

Juan Perez is a senior at Avance whose family immigrated from Mexico. He said most of the students at the school understood what Fatima and her family were going through.

“We never doubted to stand up for one of our own. Many of our families were ready for something like this to happen after Trump became president, and the school support was very important to know how to help the Avelica family when the arrest happened,” he said.

“This is an example for other families to fight, to stand firm, use the process, and get the right community partners that help them navigate the situation,” Mireles said. “I told Fatima, you are the Rosa Parks of this era. For the rest of history now, people are going to remember who stood up to President Trump and the misguided policies that he had. You did and your family did, and people are going to remember that.”

Mireles said the “Academia Avance family” is preparing for the release of Avelica-Gonzalez on Aug. 30, when his legal team is expecting that an immigration judge will order his release from the Adelanto Detention Center, near San Diego, where he has been held for six months.  

“Romulo wants to thank the entire community by cooking for them the day after his release. We are hopeful it will be a big celebration,” he said.

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