For many of the estimated 1 million undocumented children in the US, and for roughly 4.5 million young people who were born in the US but have at least one undocumented parent, they suffer from anxiety as they travel from home to school, since themselves or their parents may be arrested and deported at the school gate.
As Trump tightens immigration enforcement, education officials across the country are launching a national resistance movement, declaring their schools “sanctuaries” from Trump’s immigration policies. Superintendents and school board members from diverse districts have created or revised “sanctuary school” resolutions, vowing to protect students’ personal data from immigration authorities and block federal agents’ access to school property unless they present a warrant.
In California, where about 250,000 undocumented children are enrolled in public schools and 750,000 have at least one undocumented parent, about 60 schools and county education offices have adopted resolutions to safeguard undocumented students. Lawmakers are also debating a “sanctuary state” bill.
All children living in the US have the legal right to attend public schools, regardless of their immigration status, due to a 1982 Supreme Court decision. Moreover, since 2011 Immigration and Customs Enforcement has maintained a policy of avoiding enforcement activities at schools. Still, many immigrant families worry that enrollment in school could create data and paper trails that expose them to possible enforcement actions. Trump’s executive orders on immigration encourage collaboration between federal and local authorities, triggering concern that local police officers stationed inside schools might share information with federal immigration agents.
The heightened enforcement has brought heightened anxiety. After the recent presidential election, some schools saw marked drops in attendance as immigrant parents, afraid of exposing their children to the authorities, kept their kids at home. Schools in Las Cruces, New Mexico, saw a 60% increase in absences following a local immigration raid in February. That coincided with a national Day Without Immigrants protest when several districts across the country reported a rise in absences; but many students didn’t return to class for a month or longer.
Our Verdict: sanctuary school policies represent symbolic actions to show families that schools are on their side and educate them about their rights. Sanctuary school resolutions also help ease parents’ and children’s anxiety by ensuring that teachers and principals know how to respond if immigration agents go to a school or request student information. However, it is important to bear in mind that “sanctuary” is not a legal term, and in some cases have political implications. Districts should not overpromise the protection they can provide for undocumented families.