Schools Look to Be a Haven for Immigrant Students Amid Fears of ICE Arrests

Feb 13, 2017

About 20 men and women sat in the cafeteria with their children at Rodriguez Elementary in South Austin after school Friday, listening to Yunuen Alvarado with the local teacher's union, Education Austin.

“If an immigration officer goes to your door what you have to remember is you don’t open that door," Alvarado said in English and Spanish. “ICE can only enter your home if they have a warrant signed from a judge from a criminal court.”

All of the people gathered for Education Austin’s "Know Your Rights" seminar were immigrants. The union has a $30,000 grant from the National Education Association for this kind of work. The seminar reviews what a person’s rights are if ICE agents come to their home or stop them on the street, at a checkpoint or at work.

“If you encounter an immigration officer on the street, the first thing you have to remember is that you don’t run. The moment that you run it can be used against you. It makes you look guilty," Alvarado said.

Recent arrests of undocumented immigrants by Immigrant and Customs Enforcement agents in Austin have raised concerns in many immigrant communities. Teachers and local education groups are trying to ease student and family fears through education. 

“If families are living in an apartment and they see the ICE van taking someone, then they take pictures and then people get worried," said Montserrat Garibay, a pre-K teacher and vice president of Education Austin. “It might not be a raid per se, but for people not knowing that these ICE agents have warrants, it’s going to seem like a raid.”

Garibay says it’s difficult for immigrant families to get accurate information about what’s happening and what their rights are.

“One of the things we really want to say to people, to communities: Come, calm down, have a safe plan and plan what are your next actions if that happens," she said. "That’s our role, really, to tell people that they can get resources and know what to do."

At the seminar, parents got packets to fill out a plan for their family in case of an immigration emergency. Some parents expressed concern about what would happen to their children if they were arrested while their children were at school.

In a statement, ICE said it regularly conducts targeted enforcement operations to apprehend “deportable foreign nationals." The agency denies it created checkpoints in the area, but the lack of communication about the arrests caused confusion and panic. On Friday, that anxiety bled into schools and the classroom.

“Overall, I’ve been more quiet than usual, so I don’t talk to friends as much about anything; same goes for my parents," said Lizandro, 14, a freshman at Austin Achieve School in East Austin. He immigrated from Mexico. None of the students who spoke with KUT wanted to give their last names because they are undocumented. Austin Achieve estimates a fifth of its students are undocumented.

“I feel useless when it comes to talking about these types of things that scare my parents. I don’t like the feeling that I can do a lot more but I’m scared to do it," Lizandro said. "I don’t want to give into the fear and give up, but it’s kind of hard to keep going when all of this is happening, and you’re just worried what’s going to happen to your family.”

The lack of information about these arrests made students at Austin Achieve realize the need for more accurate information. On Friday, ninth- and 10th-grade students spent time with worried middle school students. 

“We got to talk in a circle and we find out, yes, some people are just feeling really stressed and they don’t know what’s going on," said Katia, 16, one of the students leading these conversations.."We have come to a conclusion that we need to put more information for parents and scholars to know more about what’s going on instead of randomly saying little pieces of things that they heard.”

Katia came to the U.S. from El Salvador as an unaccompanied minor when she was 12.

“I just really want to get here for education, to see my family and not go back to where I was. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t feel safe. That kept me walking," she said. 

Katia went days without food, crossed rivers and walked three days in the desert before she was found. “The experience ... was really traumatic but it shaped me, so I appreciate everything I have.”

Austin Achieve students say teachers have been providing information about what to do if they encounter ICE agents, and they feel like school is a safe place. 

Garibay with Education Austin says Austin ISD needs to keep telling its families that schools are safe, too. Superintendent Paul Cruz sent a memo to the school community on Friday that included general information about resources for refugee and immigrant students. But Garibay says the district — and the Austin School Board — need to go further than that.

“Dr. Cruz and the school board members need to come out and say, 'This is a safe place. ICE is not going to come to our schools,'" Garibay said. "I think that’s very important for the families to hear."

The Austin School Board had been drafting a resolution in support of its immigrant and undocumented families since the end of last school year. But the resolution was stalled because of board politics and the current political climate.

Last week, the Houston ISD school board unanimously approved a similar resolution. Garibay says Education Austin plans to push the Austin School Board to pass its resolution as soon as possible.