By Sabrina Holcomb
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As Inauguration Day approaches—along with rising fears that President-elect Trump will keep his campaign promise to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, leaving close to a million DREAMers and millions more undocumented students vulnerable to deportation—school districts across the country are rushing to declare school campuses “safe zones.”
Concerns intensified after last week’s Senate confirmation hearing when Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for Attorney General, would not commit to protecting DACA students or promise not to use the information collected when they signed up for the program against them.
Frightened families are turning to their children’s educators for solace and advice as more school boards hasten to adopt safe zone resolutions—going on record that they won’t allow immigration enforcement agents into their schools without a review process.
“Panicky parents and students are asking me what’s going to happen to them on January 20,” reports Illinois elementary school teacher Elizabeth Jiménez. “It’s urgent for schools to send a message of support letting students know they’re not alone.”
In addition to teaching English language learners in Maercker school district 60, Jiménez, a graduate of NEA’s Minority and Women’s Leadership program, serves as the first Latina school board member in Berwyn South 100, a school district with large populations of Latino, ELL, and immigrant students.
Recognizing her students will be particularly hard hit by harsh rhetoric and hardline immigration policies, Jiménez is exploring NEA’s new sample safe zone resolution policy with her board members.
“No one knows exactly what will happen after the new administration takes office,” notes NEA Senior Counsel Emma Leheny, who drafted sample resolutions for K-12 and higher ed campuses to educate school staff about the protections they can legally offer students.
“The guidelines amplify the rights that students and schools already have,” explains Leheny. “Our members want to know, ‘What do we do if ICE agents attempt to come on campus? How can we help our students without breaking the law’?”
NEA’s safe zone resolution answers these questions and more by:
- recommending steps for educators and administrators to follow if approached by ICE on school grounds
- recognizing the constitutional right of undocumented students to a public K-12 education, as set forth by the Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe
- and most important, says Leheny, sending a clear message of support to students and their families, reassuring them they belong in the school community.
Although mega cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York led the first wave of the movement with school board resolutions, city council legislation, and public statements of support, mid-size and smaller school districts—from Montgomery County, Maryland, to Roaring Fork, Colorado—have followed suit.
Higher education institutions from coast to coast are vowing to offer sanctuary to their undocumented students, while nearly 600 college and university presidents who signed an open letter supporting the DACA program have offered to meet with U.S. leaders to press their case.
“I’m proud of the education community,” declares Elizabeth Jiménez, who is lobbying her school board to adopt a safe zone resolution by the end of January.
“They’re bravely going on record to voice their commitment to all of their students and staff, including those who are undocumented,” says Jiménez, who feels a profound responsibility to be that voice for her students.
“Having been undocumented at one point in my life makes me that voice. Being the only Latina on my school board makes me that voice. Most of all, being a teacher makes me that voice.”