Citing a climate of fear and uncertainty, the administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe has issued guidance to Virginia’s public schools on how to respond if federal immigration officials seek information about students and their parents.
The nearly 1,200-word memo from state Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven R. Staples — shared with schools Tuesday and publicized by the administration Wednesday — reminded school workers not to disclose a student’s immigration status and encouraged officials to develop a plan for what to do if a child’s caretaker is detained or deported.
“President (Donald) Trump’s unprecedented modifications to long-standing immigration policies have led to fear and uncertainty in many of our communities,” McAuliffe said through a spokesman.
“So let me be clear: the commonwealth will continue to be a welcoming place for all students and families, and my administration remains committed to honoring our constitutional obligation to provide each and every pupil with a free and high-quality public education, regardless of immigration status.”
The state Department of Education is not aware of a recent instance in which a student’s caretaker had been deported but has fielded concerns from public school officials across the state unsure of how to quell students’ anxieties, Staples said.
In turn, administrators have asked for help in interpreting what they should and should not do if federal officials ask for information.
“Guidance is more helpful before anything happens than after,” Staples said in an interview. “We really sat down and tried to give both legal and practical advice.”
Last week, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, and Chicago Public Schools’ chief education officer issued similar guidance to public school workers faced with a growing uncertainty over how far Trump’s pledge to bolster immigration enforcement may extend.
Staples issued the advice to local superintendents on Tuesday as reports trickled out that Trump might be open to a compromise on immigration reform that could include a path to citizenship for some undocumented residents.
That opening — which came in remarks to select media outlets — was not included Tuesday night in Trump’s address to Congress in which he reiterated his commitment to aggressive immigration enforcement and touted the establishment of an office dedicated to assisting victims of crimes perpetrated by undocumented immigrants.
The office was included among executive orders Trump signed in January that target so-called sanctuary cities, seek to speed the pace of deportations, expand the circumstances under which someone would be prioritized for removal from the U.S., and ramp up hiring of immigration officers.
These more robust efforts will not reverse a standing policy against conducting enforcement activities on school grounds, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said.
The agency issued a statement about the policy in response to specific questions about information gathering in public schools:
“The ICE sensitive locations policy, which remains in effect, provides that enforcement actions at sensitive locations should generally be avoided, and require either prior approval from an appropriate supervisory official or exigent circumstances necessitating immediate action.”
But school officials remain wary.
“It’s a wrenching feeling in our guts that children cannot only physically be afraid but emotionally be afraid that their parents may not be there when they go home,” Virginia Board of Education President Billy K. Cannaday Jr. said in a meeting last week.
Staples focused the memo on four questions that were composites of queries his office received from superintendents.
The first few hinged on ascertaining school officials’ role in the balance between students’ rights and immigration officials’ authority; the last asked what schools should do to prepare students for a situation in which their caretaker were deported, and what actions schools can take to be supportive of students and families who fear deportation.
All boil down to this, Staples said: How do you protect kids while living up to your expectations as a public official?
The state does not gather nor are school districts allowed to provide information about students’ immigration status. That data is not tracked, nor is it needed, said Staples.
“I don’t think schools see the need to classify students around (status),” Staples said. “It’s really about the child in front of me — how do I meet their needs?”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled decades ago that public schooling should be provided to all children regardless of immigration status, a decision cited by Richmond Public Schools officials in response to specific questions about what the school system is doing to prepare students.
“As an inclusive school district, we embrace our diverse population and recognize the importance of creating a safe, comfortable teaching and learning environment for everyone,” Richmond schools spokeswoman Kenita Bowers said in an email.
School officials in Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield, Henrico and Hanover either did not or were not able to provide specific answers to what actions those districts were taking to prepare students for the possibility a caretaker could be deported.
For many school workers, where a student was born and how they got here has not been critical, but all that has changed as rhetoric around immigration enforcement ramped up with the election of Trump.
“It didn’t matter,” Staples said. “(Then) all of a sudden, it did matter.”
State Del. R. Steven Landes, R-Augusta, said state education officials should provide guidance to local districts but questioned whether the advice would clarify a complicated situation or further confuse people living these issues on a daily basis.
He said officials on the state and local levels have been quick to grandstand over immigration issues but noted that enforcement is a federal responsibility.
“My hope is that this won’t cause any more confusion about whose responsibility is whose,” Landes said. “I think that ultimately the federal government trumps whatever the state government has to say about all this.”
Left to discern for themselves what the coming months will bring, undocumented immigrants are availing themselves of legal workshops designed to inform them of what rights they have if they come in contact with enforcement agents, said Tanishka Cruz with the Legal Aid Justice Center’s immigrant advocacy program.
Cruz said two meetings last month drew crowds of 150 to 200 people in central Virginia, where advocates helped immigrant parents lay out their wishes for what should happen to their children if they were deported.
“You don’t want to try to figure all of this out when you’re in the middle of all that chaos,” Cruz said. “Right now, it feels for a lot of people like everything is out of control, but you can’t stop going to work, you can’t stop sending your kids to school, and you can’t be paralyzed by fear.”