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What does it mean that LAUSD is a ‘safe zone’ from immigration officials?

Mike Szymanski | February 18, 2016

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Isabelle Medina told the school board, “Take care of my family as if they were your family.”

The second largest school district in the nation went on record last week saying it won’t allow law enforcement agents looking to deport those without documentation into any of its 1,274 schools without a review process.

The LA Unified School Board voted unanimously to make the district a “safe zone.” The district is not the first. Across the nation from San Francisco Unified to Montgomery County, Md., school districts have made the same declarations in recent weeks.

It’s significant here because about 74 percent of LAUSD students are Latino, and an estimated 10 percent of LA’s population is in the city illegally. “I appreciate when we try to take a leadership role in situations like this,” said board member Monica Ratliff. Fellow board member and teacher Monica Garcia was adamant about her response if Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents showed up asking for information about her students.

“When ICE comes to my school, I’ll say, ‘You sit right down and I’ll call somebody,’” Garcia said. “You don’t have access to my kids!”

The resolution that was passed:

  • Forbids agents from coming on campus without review and not before a decision is made by the superintendent and the LAUSD lawyer’s office.
  • Forbids school staff to ask about a student’s immigration status or that of family members.
  • Provides teachers, administrators and other staff training on how to deal with immigration issues and how to notify families in multiple languages of issues.
  • Asks all schools to treat students equitably, including those receiving free and reduced lunches, transportation and other services.
  • Requires the superintendent to come up with a plan in 90 days to provide assistance, information and safety for students and families “if faced with fear and anxiety related to immigration enforcement efforts.”

The resolution was presented by school board president Steve Zimmer, who said he doesn’t usually bring up such proposals.

“I don’t do it lightly, the chairman doesn’t usually bring up resolutions like this,” Zimmer said. He felt that decisions pending with the Supreme Court about immigration laws and the fear-mongering banter at presidential debates have led to high anxiety at school campuses.

“I hear the vitriol and hate that is part of the political dialogue on TV and radio waves literally every morning, noon and night,” Zimmer said. “It is creating anxiety with students, parents, families and school communities. I ask that we stand with our families in this important moment. I want every child and every family to feel safe in our schools.”

Zimmer said another thing that prompted the resolution was a crackdown by ICE agents on undocumented immigrants in the past few months. Although ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said in a statement that they wouldn’t be going to schools, there is still mistrust among the families.

“They [ICE] change their policies, they change their practices,” said Maria Elena Durazo, the general vice president for immigration, civil rights and diversity of Unite Here International Union, which represents food service handlers and other workers at schools. “We can’t allow our immigrant families and youth to have their studies disrupted by unjust raids. People running for president are speaking this hate, calling us rapists and so many other names and calling for the registry of Muslims. It is outrageous.”

For Isabelle Medina, it means that she can attend adult school without being asked about her undocumented status, and if her children come home and find that their mom is gone, she feels relieved knowing that they can now go to the school for help.

“You need to make sure my family feels safe and can continue to go to school every morning,” said Medina, breaking into tears as she spoke to the school board. “What will happen if I get picked up? Take care of my family as if they were your family.”

Medina, who is a member of the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said she taped a list of emergency numbers on her refrigerator door for her children in case she is detained. She said the “safe zone” declaration by LAUSD was more than just a symbolic gesture. She said the resolution now gives teeth to teachers and principals to help families.

“Teachers can only do so much when a child is having this trauma because his parent is deported,” Medina said.

For Pedro Trujillo, it means his friends at Bravo High School and other LA schools can continue to study without fear of being dragged out and sent across the border by ICE agents. Trujillo, a youth organizer for the California Dream Network, said the resolution is a big relief. He told the board, “You are reassuring families that you have an ally and working with them.”

(Photo: Immigration and Customs Enforcement website)

(Photo: Immigration and Customs Enforcement website)

Although Zimmer said he drafted the resolution with input from school police and the school attorney’s office, he noted that some revisions were still being requested before it was passed. Chief LAUSD attorney David Holmquist was concerned that the investigative agencies had to bring proof that a crime was in progress when they came to a school, which was unlikely to happen. He advised taking the decisions out of the hands of the school principals and referring agents to his office and the superintendent before allowing access to any school.

“I’m concerned that principals in our schools will have to make judgment calls without input from our office, and that is not the best thing to do,” Holmquist said. “We want principals to comply with the law.”

The school board accepted the attorney’s changes and listened to other input from the community.

Juan Flecha, now president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles which represents principals at schools, told a story about being brought over from Tijuana at 2 weeks old and how his parents struggled to naturalize him.

“I am extremely passionate about this resolution,” Flecha said. “When I was 7 years old in Parmelee Avenue Elementary School we heard the media frenzy of ‘la migra’ taking kids and entire families away. The fear that youngsters experience really hit home with me.”

UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl said the teachers union is “proud to be part of the movement of pushing back at the inhumanity of ICE raids and the threat to separate families. Schools as safe zones is exactly in the community spirit that we support.”


Pedro Trujillo, a youth organizer with California Dream Network, praised the board for “reassuring families.”

Service Employees International Union Local 99 spokesman Lester Garcia pointed out that his service employees and school aides are among the first people that families meet when they come to school campuses. “People trust schools more than they do parks or hospitals or any public agency,” he said. “They are more likely to share their story than in any city or county building.”

Garcia said that the resolution means that he can post reliable information in parent centers at schools to keep unscrupulous “so-called lawyers” from preying on families and “drive them deeper into a hole.”

Garcia added, “This is more than sending a message, this is showing that the district is willing to equip them with tools they need to provide accurate information.”

Board member Richard Vladovic pointed out that families should also not fear sharing information about the federal free lunch program. “We want to make sure all children are being fed, we are not sharing that information with anybody,” he said.

Board member Ratliff was reminded of her mother coming from Mexico when they lived in Arizona and the fear she felt when once detained at the border after visiting Mexico.

“I know how afraid I was then, and we had all our documents,” Ratliff recalled. “I can only imagine the terror when they are afraid of deportation and afraid of immigration.”

Zimmer nodded after hearing the story and said, “Make our schools free of terror.”

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