Palm Beach County school board passes resolution supporting immigrant families

Resolution includes 'safe plan' for parents
Posted at 8:19 PM, Apr 19, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-19 21:26:46-04

With immigration a hot button issue, Palm Beach County Schools continues to deal with families fearing deportation and keeping students at home.

But a resolution up for vote could make immigrant families feel more at ease.

In the resolution, the school district would commit to keeping federal authorities off school grounds if they ever try to take an immigrant child or going through records, unless there's a court order. The proposal also asks each school to work with parents to create "safe plans" for kids in case the parents get deported.

At their Wednesday night meeting, the school board voted unanimously to support the "Resolution to Promote Welcoming and Inclusive Schools for All Students and Families". Over a dozen parents, teachers and clergy in the community spoke out in support of the resolution during public comments.

One of the speakers included Evelin Santana. As a baby, she emigrated to the United States with her parents from Guatemala.

"I actually faced deportation myself when I was younger," she said. "They were going to give my parents residency but they weren't going to give me residency. I was 15 years old at the time. I had no idea about Guatemala, I hadn't been there since I was born."

A resident now, she's helping families at the Guatemalan Maya Center. She's all too familiar with the complicated immigration system that the families she is helping are dealing with.

"The judge took one look at my family and said 'Hey, we don't want to separate you guys,'" she recalled of her experience when she was a teen.

But others aren't so lucky. She's known of parents being taken way by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers while the children are still at school.

"They shouldn't be worrying about that, especially going into their studies, they should be focusing on school," said Santana.

That's why Palm Beach County Schools is voting on a resolution to not only prevent roundups on campuses, but to encourage schools to create "safe plans" for families and keep updated emergency contacts.

"To have parents create a plan in case they are detained or deported. What to do with their children in case another family member has to pick up the children in a worse case scenario," said Tim Gamwell, assistant executive director for the Guatemalan Maya Center. "We hope that this sends a very clear message that the school district of Palm Beach County is a welcoming school district for our immigrant families."

Gamwell said the resolution was spurred by the fear and confusion generated during the "Day Without An Immigrant" movement in February. Many families had heard rumors that ICE agents would be out in full force that day and parents kept their students home from school in fear they wouldn't see them again.

"It's a difficult time, as deportations and raids or the fear and threat of deportations and raids increase," said Gamwell.

This resulted in many students being absent across the district, with one school reporting 500 absentees.

"That create a large response by the schools themselves. It wasn't until a week later that Dr. Avossa released a statement to all families directly saying, 'This is a safe place for you,'" said Gamwell. "This really was the start for a large movement."

Gamwell said an important part of the multi-faceted resolution also calls for school staff to be trained at no cost by groups like the Guatemalan Maya Center and the Palm Beach County Coalition for Immigrant Families, which helped push the resolution.

"So that everybody knows what to do if an ICE officer come to the schools," said Gamwell. "There's differing ideas about what to do in different situations or how to address the anxiety that many children feel about these issues. So that's all part of the training that could be covered under this resolution."

The Guatemalan Maya Center already works with elementary schools in the district on two different workshops for parents. The center holds power of attorney clinics at Highland Elementary to have parents created a plan in case they are deported. The school is also urged to keep their emergency contacts updated.

The resolution could ensure that programs already being exercised at some schools could become available to every student and family across the district.

"We're very hopeful that this resolution from the school board will allow us to work with more schools and positively affect more families," said Gamwell.

Opponents believe the district might lose funding because the move could violate federal law.

"We also understand that it's difficult to be in support of immigrants with all of the negative rhetoric coming from the administration," said Gamwell.

But Jill Hanson, a local attorney and board chair of the Florida Immigration Coalition, says this isn't a policy, just a stance.

"There are laws of the United States that actually requires schools to safeguard information," she said. "I think for the district just by simply saying to families, 'we're here to educate children and we're not here to help children or families get deported and that we are here to help families' will help ease a lot of fears as far as people sending their kids to school," she said.

Gamwell said this is not a change in school policy because school and federal policy already protects student records. Any access to student records and student information is strictly protected by FERPA ( Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) and ICE would have to go to the office of general counsel within the district to request those records.

"The school district is clearly stating that they are complying with federal law by requiring ICE officers on campus to notify general counsel. And if they wish to access student records, they have to do so through proper channels," he added.

Hanson said there were a lot of deportations under the Obama administration but the priorities eventually changed to where to families were no longer first on the list for deportation.

"But now, with this new administration, those priorities seem to be gone out the window," she said.

Hanson recalls a case about a woman in Miami who was pulled over for making a rolling stop at a stop sign.

"She did not have a driver's license. She was immediately taken to jail and it's not necessarily a jail offense, usually you just get a ticket," she said. "But they took her to jail and ICE put a hold on her. She's a single mother of a 4-year old child."

Santana said the resolution is a step in the right direction for the district.

She recalled the support her family received from tutors, teachers and others over the years. That's why she joined the Marines after graduating high school.

"I was a sophomore in high school when my parents got their green cards so I decided to join and give back to the country that's given so much to me and my family," she said.

Similar resolutions have already passed in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.