Miami schools vote to protect undocumented immigrants, refugees

Miami-Dade schools leaders reaffirmed their support for undocumented students Wednesday, joining a growing number of school districts nationwide that have publicly designated schools a safe zone in the face of more aggressive immigration enforcement policies under the Trump administration.

The Miami-Dade County School Board voted to review current laws and district policies to determine what else the district can do to protect undocumented immigrant students and to work with community organizations on joint advocacy efforts.

The intent, said School Board member Lubby Navarro, who sponsored the item, is “to ensure that our schools are safe havens for all students and that this message resonates throughout entire communities, our neighborhoods, our barrios, so that everyone knows that our schools are safe for our children and our families.”

The school district already prohibits Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from setting foot on school property or coming to education-related events without an order from a judge. ICE also discourages its agents from carrying out immigration enforcement at schools and other “sensitive locations” like hospitals and churches, Nestor Yglesias, a spokesman for the agency, said in a statement. ICE’s policy states that enforcement at these locations should be avoided except in extreme circumstances or with the approval of a high-level official.

Supporters say public shows of support like the Miami-Dade school board’s have symbolic importance, however, helping to ease the anxieties of immigrant families who increasingly fear deportation following recent changes in immigration enforcement policies.

“We need to repeat the words that they are safe in our classrooms, they are safe in our schools, that we are not going to treat them in any different way because of their undocumented status and their parents need to be reassured that we are going to protect our children,” said United Teachers of Dade president Karla Hernandez-Mats.

At least a dozen residents and activists spoke in favor of the board item, including 10-year-old Jasmine Lopez, a student at Arcola Lake Elementary whose father is an undocumented immigrant and whose mother is a so-called Dreamer, an immigrant who arrived as a child and has been granted temporary immigration relief.

“I have been scared of losing my parents at a young age, especially when I walk, take a bus or drive to school,” Lopez said. “I am here to say that we have to prevent and protect our immigrant families from getting separated because…our people didn’t came to harm this country. They came so that their children would have a better future.”

The School Board was also expected to vote to lobby against state legislation that would cut funding for refugees and impact how much tuition undocumented immigrants pay at Florida colleges and universities, adding these issues to the board’s 2017 legislative platform.

One bill before the Florida legislature (HB 427) would end Florida’s participation in a federal refugee program, eliminating some benefits for refugee families and causing the school district to lose millions in funding for English and vocational training programs serving refugees at its adult education centers. Another bill (SB 82) would end the requirement that state colleges and universities provide in-state tuition for undocumented immigrant students who attended high school in Florida.

The Miami-Dade school district has long been vocal in its support of undocumented immigrants. In 2012, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho joined a protest at North Miami Senior High after a judge ordered the deportation of the school’s valedictorian, a Colombian immigrant whose parents brought her to the United States as a toddler. In January, the school board authorized the superintendent to write a letter to President Donald Trump expressing the school district’s support for immigration relief for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children.

Last week, the School Board of Broward County passed a resolution declaring its schools a safe place for undocumented immigrants and voted to have schools work with parents and community organizations to come up with a plan in case a student’s parents are deported. School districts across the country, including districts in Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver and Houston, have passed similar resolutions.