By Aja Watkins and Kevin Murray
The Boston City Council held a March 7 hearing on a resolution, introduced by Councilor Tito Jackson, to declare Boston Public Schools sanctuary schools. A sanctuary school would refuse to participate in any action to enforce federal immigration policies, including the signed by President Trump. Around 200 community members met at St. Stephen’s Youth Programs on March 7 and heard testimony from teachers, students, activists, and BPS personnel regarding the proposed resolution.
Those who argued in favor of the resolution cited fear of deportation as an impediment to learning. Students who are undocumented, or who have undocumented relatives, are particularly impacted by policies of the new administration. However, proponents of the sanctuary schools resolution said that the issue at hand wasn’t immigration policy, but the right to education. If children are afraid of attending school or related stress, they will be distracted and unable to learn. School nurses and teachers cited research and cases establishing that a worry of deportation can be destabilizing for families, both economically and psychologically, and Councilor Ayanna Pressley related this proposal to current work regarding school responses to trauma. Because traumatized children cannot adequately exercise their right to education, policies that increase fear to attend school undermine that right.
Some community members and policymakers questioned the resolution’s possible impact on students’ ability to focus at school. For example, a resolution protecting children while they are at school would not be able to mitigate fears children may have about deportation of their family members. In response, Councilor Jackson emphasized the importance of taking steps in the right direction, and the power of simple declarations to set the tone for policy implementation. Parents spoke about children in their community who are too afraid to go to school – the most extreme case – who have the most to gain from a sanctuary schools resolution. Jackson also referred to a complementary proposal for an Immigration Defense Fund that would help supply lawyers to defendants in immigration court cases.
A panel of BPS administrators answered questions about the district’s current policy regarding federal law enforcement. When any kind of law enforcement enters a school, the central office is notified first, consults their legal team, and acts accordingly. Instances of this are rare, according to the BPS representatives. Furthermore, BPS does not collect data about students’ citizenship or immigration status, and panelists emphasized that they strictly observe all confidentiality requirements regarding student data. Jackson suggested that the superintendent, himself should be required to sign off on any cooperation with federal law enforcement, and noted that the resolution was aligned with the BPS mission to create “safe, healthy, and welcoming” school spaces.
When questioned about their response to the executive orders, panelists from the BPS cited the activation of an emergency response team, and recent correspondence with school leaders requesting that they communicate any effects of the November presidential election on school climate. So far, no district-wide teacher training on appropriate responses to the orders has been provided, although a representative from Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) invited teachers to their workshops about immigrant rights.
The hearing close with many questions in the air and no action on the resolutionl, but the next day the Council unanimously endorsed a resolution affirming the “right to safe education.” The resolution is not legally-binding on the City of Boston or the BPS, and several questions remain about how Boston might implement a sanctuary schools program. First, it is unclear whether the City Council or the Boston School Committee has jurisdiction over the schools in this case. Second, the legal ramifications of enforcing the resolution – and thereby declining to cooperate with Federal law enforcement – have not been clarified. Finally, no one at the March 7 hearing was clear about what legal remedies would exist if agencies such as the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) simply ignored such a policy. Boston may be able to look to other cities such as Oakland, Des Moines, and Pittsburgh that have instituted similar policies in order to answer these questions. Serious questions notwithstanding, that the Boston City Council resolved to take action based on concern for the right to education of Boston’s children must be seen as a positive step.
Aja Watkins is a PHRGE research intern and an undergraduate at Northeastern University majoring in Philosophy and Mathematics. She is a national finalist for the 2017 Truman Fellowship Program
Kevin Murray is Executive Director of PHRGE.