Customs and Border Protection trucks outside of a Washington Heights school set a community on edge

Principal Julie Zuckerman peered out of a window, unsure what she might see after a parent called to say there were suspicious vehicles parked outside of the Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights.

She saw two trucks emblazoned with the logo of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

It turns out the agents had parked on the sidewalk right outside of the building, which is shared by another elementary school, while they had lunch across the street, Zuckerman said. They didn’t enter the building.

But the mere presence of Department of Homeland security officials in a neighborhood filled with Hispanic immigrants was unnerving. Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez tweeted a photo of the trucks, incorrectly identified as belonging to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, along with the message: “This is totally unacceptable.”

A spokesman for Customs and Border Protection declined to comment.

Almost 70 percent of Castle Bridge students are Hispanic, and Zuckerman has taken steps to make sure the school remains diverse even as the neighborhood gentrifies. It was among the first to pilot integration measures by giving certain students an admissions priority, and its dual language program attracts many Spanish-speaking families.

Castle Bridge has tried to cater to immigrant families at a time when many are reeling from a charged immigration debate raging nationally. In New York City, the rhetoric comes with real consequences: A recent comptroller’s report found that deportations are up 150 percent in the first year of the Trump administration, compared to the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency.

The spike comes even as officials have insisted the city’s doors are open to immigrants. Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised that immigration officers won’t be allowed in schools. Chancellor Richard Carranza’s pinned tweet on his social media profile states, “Let me be clear that all students — regardless of where they come from or for how long they have been here — are welcome in New York City schools.”

For now, Zuckerman said her school has largely escaped the direct impacts of stepped up immigration enforcement — the comptroller’s report found Queens has been the hardest hit borough.

On Thursday, Zuckerman said she went to find the customs agents, along with the principal of another school that shares the building, P.S. 128. A passerby pointed them to a nearby restaurant. She says they asked the agents to leave, and they did. It was just before dismissal time.

“I said, ‘This feels threatening to the parents,’” Zuckerman said. “I certainly don’t need parents thinking somehow that someone from the school called.”