Months after negotiations with an immigrant rights advocacy group, the city’s Board of Education unanimously approved a “welcoming sanctuary schools” resolution.
The resolution promises increased training for staff on how to respond to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and makes sure immigrant students and families will be safe from immigration authorities while at school. It also requires the school district to craft an emergency response plan, part of which would look at providing counseling and emotional support for students who are affected by an immigration enforcement action in the community.
The resolution also calls for a plan to provide training for staff, contractors and volunteers on who to contact and how to respond to ICE be developed within 100 days.
Juntos, an immigrant rights advocacy group in South Philadelphia, pushed the district to pass the resolution as the first step in a larger platform seeking language equity, improved cultural instruction and other educational justice reforms.
ICE has previously designated schools to be sensitive locations where agents are dissuaded from conducting enforcement actions. Those guidelines are supposed to include school-affiliated activities and areas, but community leaders have argued ICE agents have not always followed agency guidelines.
Edgar Villegas, who is the first-born son of immigrant parents and a recent graduate of the Creative and Performing Arts High School, said adopting the resolution is the first step to making sure immigrant students are safe.
“During my grade school years I have experienced immense stress,” Villegas said. “Many students feel uncomfortable sharing stories out of fear that the status of their parents could be used against them, which leaves students to rely on their classmates or other outside organizations for help. The resolution would protect students from ICE abuse and criminalizing forces.”
Villegas noted the arrest last year of a pregnant mother, Verónica del Carmen Lara Márquez, from Honduras, who was arrested by federal authorities after dropping off her 4-year-old daughter at Eliza B. Kirkbride Elementary in the Passyunk section of South Philadelphia. She was then told she had to leave the country within 45 days.
The mother’s arrest was a point of emergency for many in Philadelphia’s immigrant community.
Board members Mallory Fix Lopes and Letitia Hinton led the board’s effort with Juntos in creating the resolution. “We value our partnership and know that this must be a collaborative effort in the community and our schools,” Lopes said.
Juntos conducted a survey of teachers and administrators about the district’s existing policies around ICE involvement in its schools last year, and found 75% said they had not been trained on matters involving ICE, and 73% said they didn’t know who to notify if ICE asked about students.
Guadalupe Mendez, who is a youth program coordinator for Juntos argued the abuse students go through in school is the reason why many of them drop out.
“The systemic oppressions our people face and lack of support offered are issues our students are faced with everyday,” she said. “For our students it’s exhausting to wake up everyday for school and prepare themselves mentally for the possibility of their parents being taken away. Sanctuary is not just about keeping ICE out of school, it is protecting the rights and innocence of all of our students.”
Also during the meeting, the board voted to approve the renaming of Andrew Jackson Elementary School in South Philadelphia to Fanny Jackson Coppin Elementary School and rejected the application for Philadelphia Collegiate Charter School for Boys. The board also installed two new student representatives Rebecca Allen and Armando Ortez for the 2021-2022 school year. Allen, is a rising junior at Central High School and Ortez, is a rising senior at Northeast High School.
Mayor Jim Kenney, who was in attendance to swear in the new student representatives, issued a statement saying the resolution “ensures all Philadelphia’s public schools are safe havens for immigrant students and their families.”