School District Redoubles Efforts to Keep Undocumented Students Safe

Education leaders promise they won't share pupils' immigration status with the Feds, but they say some families should seek legal advice.

(Flickr: BowtieDSF)

When Juana came to San Francisco from El Salvador six years ago, it was to get out of a difficult relationship with her children’s father and to seek better economic opportunities. But because she and her kids are undocumented, Juana’s 11-year-old daughter, who attends Marshall Elementary School in the Mission, is often scared about the possibility of deportation.

“Before the election [of Donald Trump], I felt safe sending my daughter to school and going to work, but my daughter is afraid of going to school. She’s always afraid something is going to happen,” Juana — who asked SF Weekly not to use her last name — says through an interpreter with Pangea Legal Network. “Now, we are more afraid.”

Such fears are on the rise among many immigrant families in San Francisco since the election, says Raquel Donoso, director of Mission Promise Neighborhood, which provides a network of resources to those families. The San Francisco Unified School District has been trying to reassure its students that the district will continue to protect students from federal immigration activity.

In a Nov. 29 letter to families signed by Interim Superintendent Myong Leigh and Mayor Ed Lee, the school district emphasized that it does not ask students about their immigration status. Even if it did, the district would not share that information with federal authorities, the letter said. However, the letter warned families that immigration enforcement activities in the city could increase after Trump’s inauguration, and it advised students who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to reach out to immigration lawyers for advice.

“We are committed to providing a safe space for learning for each and every one of our students, including recent immigrants, regardless of immigration status,” the district told families in a robocall message that accompanied the letter.

When Trump announced his candidacy, he whipped up fears about immigrants, claiming that many Mexicans in particular are “criminals” and “rapists.” Early in his campaign, he promised to deport “millions and millions of undocumented immigrants.” He also used the 2015 murder of Kathryn Steinle — by Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant with a criminal history — to argue that sanctuary city policies like San Francisco’s should be abolished.

More recently, on 60 Minutes, Trump told Lesley Stahl that he would start by deporting undocumented immigrants with criminal records, which he estimated would be 2 to 3 million people, before “making a determination” about anyone else who might be in the country without authorization.

Deportation efforts were already very active under President Barack Obama, earning him the title “deporter-in-chief” among immigrants’-rights activists. Between 2010 and the end of 2014, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported almost 2 million people — 850,000 of whom were convicted of a criminal act other than being in the United States without permission, according to the agency. Even in San Francisco, which has been a sanctuary city since the late 1980s, roughly 7,000 residents were deported each year between January 2010 and February 2015, according to the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.

The day after the election, many San Francisco principals spoke to students, reassuring them that school leaders would work hard to keep them safe. One of those was Everett Middle School Principal Lena Van Haren, who emailed her staff late on election night to make sure everyone would be ready to support kids as they came to school the next morning.

“There have been a lot of nasty, scary things said,” Van Haren tells SF Weekly. “Right now, my impression is that families are anxious. They are worried about their safety. Will [sanctuary city] funding be cut? They have questions, and we don’t always know the answers yet. Since the election, some of our kids are behaving differently. There’s been a lot of fallout.”

On Tuesday, Everett hosted a workshop for its families and the wider community, offering both legal and mental health resources to locals who might need them. The purpose, Van Haren adds, is to show that “it’s really OK and normal to be feeling anxiety and stress, and we have services available.”

Some local undocumented immigrants say the district’s efforts have helped reassure them that students will be protected.

Maria, the mother of an 8-year-old and a 9-month-old, spent seven years in San Antonio after leaving Mexico. She moved to San Francisco two years ago, and says she’s comfortable sending her older child to a public school in the Mission. She also says she feels safer on San Francisco streets than she ever did in San Antonio.

“Right after the election, the principal told the parents that our children were going to be safe at school,” Maria says through an interpreter with the Mission Economic Development Agency. “That made me feel less afraid to bring my child to school.”

However, Maria says many other families are scared because of Trump’s deportation threats. She knows some students who became worried after hearing their parents say that they could be forced to go back to Mexico. She has been working with her elder child’s school to make sure those parents are connected to legal and mental health resources.

In the coming weeks, school officials will make sure that faculty at each of the city’s 115 public schools are aware of the district’s policies around immigrant students, Christina Wong, special assistant to the superintendent, says. They especially want to remind school leaders that immigration officers are not allowed on school campuses.

If an ICE officer comes on campus, “all of those requests get directed to our legal department,” Wong says. “We want to add more specificity and detail to the policy so it’s very clear to faculty.” She says she’s not aware of any incidents involving ICE officers at local schools.

School officials are also beginning to look at what could happen to the district’s budget if Trump makes good on his threat to cut funding to sanctuary cities ­— cuts that officials have estimated could cost San Francisco $1 billion, and the schools $28 million. That money pays for a variety of programs, many of which are federally mandated, including services for students learning English, support to families, and additional training for teachers, Wong adds.

However, in the same election that brought Trump to power, San Franciscans supported a measure allowing non-citizens to vote for school district board candidates. Although many school districts across the country have similar laws, Wong sees it as symbolic of the district’s commitment to educating all students — not just citizens.

“It really ties to their constitutional right to an education, access, and equity,” she says. “It’s also about parents having that voice on who is creating policies that affect their children.”

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