Donald Trump’s win in November — and his administration’s expected crackdown against undocumented immigrants — is bad for California’s education system, according to teachers, parents, and school board members in Oakland. “There were kids crying openly in the hallways,” said Camilo Gaston, an Oakland public school teacher, of Trump’s win.
Many district students and their family members are recent immigrants and the election results have left them uncertain of their futures. In response, the Oakland Unified School District recently reaffirmed its status as a sanctuary against federal immigration enforcement in hopes of protecting students and their families while also fostering a better learning environment.
The motion, approved by the OUSD board last month, was introduced by Roseann Torres with support from Shanthi Gonzales. The reaffirmation expands on the language of OUSD’s original sanctuary-school resolution, passed in 2008, which was prompted by an incident in which an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent allegedly escorted a student’s mother onto an Oakland school campus before detaining her for questioning.
Torres said in an interview that she put the resolution forward in part because of harassment of Latino parents on campus by other parents. When there are conflicts among students, she said, parents sometimes get involved and resort to threats against each other based on the other family’s perceived immigration status:
“A parent might say, ‘I’m gonna call ICE on you!’ You know, with an expletive on the end,” said Torres.
She also wanted to spread the district’s message that schools are safe, places where undocumented immigrants won’t be targeted by law enforcement. She said there’s a real risk that parents will stop sending their kids to school out of fear that ICE might target campuses for sweeps.
“The children lose instruction,” she explained. Reduced attendance could impact the overall quality of their education. “We lose money for average daily attendance, so then we can’t provide the resources and the instruction that they so urgently need to learn English and get ahead in life and graduate.”
Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican campaign rhetoric is cited in the new district resolution: “The 2016 presidential election has created an atmosphere of fear among immigrants, Muslims and other vulnerable groups in Oakland.”
Teachers, parent groups, and activists also pushed for the resolution to respond to Trump’s proposed Muslim registry.
Gonzales told the Express that she co-sponsored the motion out of fear that governmental actions will have a chilling effect on the educational rights of immigrant students. Children have to feel safe in order to learn, and if they’re worried about ICE raids they’re more likely to avoid school or struggle in class, she said.
While this new policy instructs staff to forward any ICE request for to the superintendent, Torres and Gonzales were both careful to explain that they’re not instructing staff to violate any laws. Because of this, Gonzales isn’t worried about retaliation against OUSD, via the removal of federal funding.
But activists with the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigrant Rights, and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary asked for stronger language and a promise to protect students from the threat of a raid.
“It should say, explicitly, ‘We will not allow ICE to come into our schools and take any of our students or our staff,'” said Yvette Felarca of BAMN after the meeting.
As written, the motion leaves the final decision on ICE requests for access up to the superintendent. OUSD’s current superintendent, Antwan Wilson, recently announced that he will move to Washington, D.C., to run that city’s schools, leaving Oakland’s top position vacant.
For Felarca, appointing the superintendent as the final arbiter between immigration authorities and district staff leaves too much in question.
“Any district staff at any of the schools, at all of the schools, would gladly put themselves between their students and Trump’s ICE,” she continued, citing examples of educators who directly oppose laws they considered unjust. She specifically mentioned statewide teacher walkouts in opposition to Proposition 187, a 1994 law that would have denied undocumented immigrants access to public education, but was eventually struck down by a federal judge.
OUSD also has a growing proportion of “newcomer students,” who have been in the country for less than a year and are particularly vulnerable to changes in immigration policy and enforcement. Many came to the United States as refugees or asylum seekers, so they’re often already traumatized, and Oakland school officials fear that Trump’s brand of jingoistic populism will add to their trauma.
As adopted, the district’s new policy includes a statement of support for educators seeking to contextualize Trump’s election. “The Board … supports the academic freedom of teachers to both teach and discuss current events with students as aligned with common core standards and OUSD Board policies.” This comes on the heels of a controversy in which a Mountain View history teacher was put on administrative leave after comparing Trump to Hitler.
The resolution also includes a section encouraging charter schools in Oakland to adopt similar measures. Charters don’t have the same level of transparency as district schools, Torres said. Since they don’t have to follow the same policies as the district’s public schools, the best the OUSD Board can do is ask charters to adopt a similar sanctuary resolution.
Torres ultimately believes that the reaffirmation of OUSD’s sanctuary policy will serve more as a statement of support than anything else. In practice, she told me, if ICE were to conduct raids near Oakland schools they would likely take the form of off-campus traffic stops before or after classes, which district staff can do little to prevent. “We have no jurisdiction off the campus,” she explained.
At the end of the day, Torres doesn’t expect the district to see a lot of action, because federal immigration officials probably won’t go into schools. “They have no business there,” she asserted. But the fear that the president-elect’s racist rhetoric has inspired in students and their families is real, and OUSD hopes to prevent that from driving undocumented students away.