After a man picking up his child near a Visalia elementary school was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement last month, local advocates are questioning the protection of so-called “sensitive locations” such as schools.
ICE has long had a policy that avoids making arrests at schools, courthouses and hospitals. But incidents like the one involving a parent of a Houston Elementary student in Visalia has heightened fears among immigrant families, and has educators concerned that parents will be afraid to take their children to school.
ICE spokesman James Schwab could not release further details about the Visalia case because the man had not yet been publicly identified, but confirmed he had a DUI. Driving-under-the-influence convictions are considered a priority for deportations “due to public safety reasons,” Schwab said.
Last month, a man was detained by ICE in Los Angeles while dropping off his 12-year-old daughter at school. That man also had prior convictions, but advocates say the incidents are causing panic for undocumented parents of schoolchildren, regardless of their records.
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“It’s cruel to these children to arrest parents near schools, or frankly, in any circumstance,” said Mark Silverman, a senior staff attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center based in San Francisco.
We know that nothing is promised. ICE can still do what it needs to do. That’s just the sad reality.
Benny Corona, American Friends Service Committee
The ILRC was warning undocumented parents in 2007 that ICE agents had been arresting people near schools while they dropped off or picked up their children. Silverman says this practice is not new, but that new federal immigration policies have heightened concerns.
“This type of arrest in Visalia is not indicative of increased ICE activity. It’s the type of action ICE has been taking for years,” he said. “The vast majority of undocumented immigrants face very little risk of detention and deportation.”
Regardless, educators worry of the consequences of stories of parents being targeted near schools.
Lucia Vasquez, Visalia Unified school board president, says she believes that the district’s average daily attendance – which is tied to state funding – will suffer because of undocumented families’ fear of deportation.
“We have concerns that people are staying away from schools. It’s happening,” she said. “There is a lot of fear.”
We have concerns that people are staying away from schools.
Lucia Vasquez, Visalia Unified
Vasquez said that while she supports adopting a “safe haven” resolution, like many districts have across the state, there has been opposition from other trustees on the Visalia board. “Some board members are adamantly against it,” she said. “I’m hoping in the future we can successfully do something that would allow parents to feel more comfortable and safe, but I’m only one of seven.”
Fresno Unified passed such a resolution last month, vowing to protect undocumented students to the fullest extent of the law and reiterating the commitment to keep student information private. But FUSD Trustee Claudia Cazares now worries ICE’s action near schools will hurt families’ faith in such resolutions.
“It undermines what we’ve done. It’s a very backwards way of arresting somebody when they’re doing their duty as a parent to get their child to school,” she said. “Even though schools are safe places, they’re waiting for people to be one step off of school grounds, so they might as well be arresting them inside.”
Cazares said while no incidents have been reported near schools in Fresno, school officials are in the dark about much of ICE’s tactics, and she’s pushing for answers.
“We don’t collect any immigration information from students, so then how are parents getting tracked to the school? Why don’t they just arrest them at home? How do they know the kids are at that school? I don’t understand,” she said. “I think we need an answer to alleviate some of the fears in the community.”
Even though schools are safe places, they’re waiting for people to be one step off of school grounds.
Claudia Cazares, Fresno Unified
Benny Corona, a fellow with the American Friends Service Committee – a Quaker activist group that works with immigrants in Visalia – says the incident has put a damper on optimism regarding immigrant protections, pointing to the “sanctuary state” bill that the California Senate passed on Monday that is now headed to the Assembly.
“Even if SB 54 were to pass, we know that nothing is promised,” Corona said. “ICE can still do what it needs to do. That’s just the sad reality.”
Corona said his concern is about “collateral damage” – ICE’s contact with undocumented people who are with those who are being targeted for deportation, but do not have outstanding orders for deportation themselves.
“From the stories we’ve heard in Visalia, ICE might show up looking for somebody on their list, but start asking other people in the home if they’re undocumented or not,” he said. “This is the group we’re really worried about: Hard-working people here in Tulare County – people just trying to get by, that are, in many ways, model citizens but for the fact they are undocumented.”
Isabel Machado, who heads an immigration law firm in Fresno, said many of her clients are afraid to leave their homes altogether.
“I’m not sure that there is a safe place right now. That’s the reality of it,” she said. “DHS (Department of Homeland Security) officials have access to a lot more information than we realize, and if they want to track somebody down, chances are they are going to track somebody down.”