For many who have immigrated to the United States, President Donald Trump’s call for the U.S. to build a wall at the Mexican border, cut off funding for “sanctuary” cities and ban refugees have ignited fear and uncertainty.
For undocumented students, or those who have undocumented relatives, these fears are particularly salient.
At a Indianapolis Public Schools board meeting last week, Manuel Martinez, an IPS parent, called on the district to support families and help them learn about their rights. Parents and grandparents of IPS students are afraid they will be deported, he said.
“This is producing a toxic environment that doesn’t allow for kids to learn or succeed academically. Many parents are worried about being separated from their children,” Martinez said. “There is a sense that this could happen at any time.”
Here are some basics on the rights of undocumented students and what the district could do to support their families.
What is a “sanctuary” city, university or district?
Some U.S. cities and counties that have adopted policies meant to protect undocumented immigrants are known as sanctuaries. These areas often have policies that discourage law enforcement from asking about immigration status or prevent jails from holding people at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But the term “sanctuary” is ambiguous, and its use is different in the context of schools and universities, where it typically focuses on limiting ICE access to student information and campuses.
Could IPS become a “sanctuary” district?
The National Immigration Law Center prepared a model resolution for school boards that includes a range of policies to protect the rights of immigrant families. The resolution aims to limit federal immigration authorities from gaining access to student information and campuses. It also provides resources for undocumented families.
Last week, board member Kelly Bentley suggested IPS should consider joining their ranks.
“We’ve got some families that probably feel quite vulnerable right now,” Bentley said. “We need to do everything we can to let our families know they are welcome in this district and that we are going to do everything we can do protect them.”
Some of the policies from the National Immigration Law Center, however, might be illegal in Indiana. Under a 2011 state law, a governmental body may not have a policy barring employees from communicating with federal officials about immigration status.
Even if the district does not adopt new policies, however, students already have protections.
Do undocumented students have a right to an education in K-12 schools?
Children are entitled to a free, public education regardless of their immigration status. That was decided more than three decades ago in the U.S. Supreme Court case Plyler vs. Doe, according to Michael Olivas, a professor at University of Houston Law Center and acting president of University of Houston Downtown.
“A student is a student is a student,” he said. “The protections are exactly the same.”
In fact, undocumented students are required by truancy laws to attend school, said Olivas, who wrote a book on the influence of Plyler.
While school districts occasionally hinder undocumented students from enrolling, those issues are typically resolved when attorneys step in, he said.
“As confusing as the system is,” Olivas said, “there have been no recent governmental actions that would affect K-12 students who may be out of status or whose parents may be out of status.”
Can school officials ask about immigration status?
School officials are not allowed ask students about their immigration status as a condition of enrollment or require children to provide Social Security numbers. Officials may ask students about their immigration status, however, if they have a legitimate reason, such as if a student is eligible for a scholarship they can only receive if they are in the country legally, Olivas said.
Can ICE agents get information from schools or come to a campus to detain students?
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act forbids schools from sharing identifiable student records without parental permission, and undocumented students have the same privacy rights as their peers. But law enforcement officers, including ICE agents, can still access student information in some situations.
“As long as a legitimate law enforcement claim is issued, than a school district or for that matter a college or university, must turn over data,” Olivas said.
Law enforcement officers could also detain children while they are at school if they have a tangible government interest, Olivas said. Although there have been some ICE raids of parents at schools, ICE policy discourages action at sensitive locations, including schools.
“School districts are not the place where we play out these pageants,” Olivas said. “Children are off limits.”
Chalkbeat reporter Shaina Cavazos contributed to this story.