Maria Tovar volunteered more than 500 hours at Washington Elementary last year. That’s almost 12 hours a week. “I do it with a lot of love,” she said in Spanish. Her son has autism and needs her “in all aspects,” which is why she’s at the school so frequently. But Washington’s tight-knit community also functions as a support system for parents, many of whom are undocumented.
Tovar and other parents worry that President Donald Trump’s executive orders will lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to show up at schools with deportation orders. “If I arrive one morning to volunteer,” she said, “I don’t want to be separated from my children.”
East Side Union and Gilroy Unified school districts released strong statements of support for immigrant families—with explicit provisions about keeping ICE off of campuses—but San Jose Unified’s proposed statement is far shorter and more general. With roughly 30,900 enrolled students, SJUSD is the largest school district in the county. Its statement makes no mention of deportations. Instead, it vaguely commits to helping students feel “valued, respected, and safe.” At an SJUSD board meeting Jan. 26, parents and children packed the room to express their frustration.
“The resolution as it’s written has no value,” said Brett Bymaster, a parent at Washington and a pastor at The River Church in Willow Glen. “We won’t accept that.”
Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent of public instruction, released guidelines for districts in crafting resolutions of support, written by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and National Immigration Law Center. Many districts in the South Bay adopted the guidelines’ strong language. Morgan Hill’s resolution, for example, states explicitly that ICE’s presence would disrupt the learning environment, that ICE agents will not be allowed at schools, and that the superintendent will protect data about student and family identities. In December, Oakland Unified School District committed to remain a “sanctuary” for undocumented students and families, detailing what staff should do if ICE seeks anyone’s personal information.
San Jose Unified’s language is far less specific than the state model.
“All of us as parents and as Latinos are worried,” said Monica Vazquez, a parent of two Washington Elementary students who spoke at the Jan. 26 board meeting. Miguel Luna fears for his grandchildren’s safety. “We don’t know how safe they’ll be in the classrooms at school,” he said.
Parents have asked for teacher training on how to respond if ICE agents ask for student information, which the San Jose Teachers’ Association said they’ll support.
Pam Foley, president of the SJUSD board, resisted adding stronger language to the San Jose Unified resolution because “there are already laws keeping ICE off campus.” She’s technically correct. Right now, ICE can’t enter school campuses because of an Obama administration executive order deeming them “sensitive locations,” along with churches and community centers. But just hours before San Jose Unified debated the resolution, ICE agents appeared at San Francisco’s Good Samaritan family center seeking information from staff. The visit stoked fears of more raids to come.
Days later, even green card holders—legal permanent residents who’d been vetted through proper channels and live in the United States—were being detained at airports because of the Trump administration’s executive order banning immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Parents say they have valid reasons to fear that Obama’s protection order for schools is in peril.
Although 53 percent of San Jose Unified students are Latino, only one of the five voting members of the school board, Teresa Castellanos, is Latina and a Spanish speaker. Board members did not appear to be using the bulky translation headsets that many parents wore at the Jan. 26 meeting, even though the majority of parents who spoke to the board did so only in Spanish. Multiple board members expressed sympathy.
“It makes my heart really sad. I cannot express that enough,” said Kimberly Meek, representing Almaden Valley. But the majority of the board seemed unaware of the contrast between San Jose’s resolution and those of neighboring districts.
Maria Marcelo, a parent who has volunteered and worked in the district for 14 years, said she heard “lots of promises, but not a lot of action” at the meeting.
Parents and children held handmade fluorescent signs that said “Unity and justice for all” and maps with the percentage of undocumented students in each board trustee’s district. Foley unexpectedly limited public comment on the issue to 20 speakers and reduced individual speaking time to one minute instead of the usual two. When the board president closed comments, a silver-haired woman called out, “How can you say you’re listening to us?” to cheers from the crowd.
Foley interrupted, “You’re out of order.”
Vazquez, one of the parent speakers, struggled to convey her thoughts in the shortened time. “You’re up there speaking and the clock’s counting down and there are so many things you wanted to say, but how can you explain all the sadness and the stress you’ve been feeling?”
Foley took issue with the parents’ demands. “There is an adversarial nature here in that we had to be told to keep children safe,” she said to the audience. “That is our number one priority.”
Peter Allen, a spokesman for SJUSD, said the district would not comply with anything “short of a warrant” and does not keep any information on students’ immigration status. “That way we can’t be compelled by the federal government or anyone else.”
But parents are seeking policy specifics from the board, not just vocal reassurance. “I’m an immigrant mother, and beyond that, I love my immigrant family,” Marcelo said. “I think the district has the responsibility and obligation to respond to us.”
Castellanos pushed the rest of the board to include language ensuring that “ICE will not be let onto campus at all, period.” Joined by Superintendent Nancy Albarrán, who also speaks Spanish, Castellanos met with Washington parents for several hours earlier in January, but Albarrán was not in attendance at last week’s board meeting.
Daniel Morales, a grandfather who attended the board meeting because his community is “half undocumented,” recalled INS raids on the East Side of San Jose in the 1960s. “The parents were very frightened, just like this,” he said. “It opens up a lot of scars.”
The SJUSD board will convene again Feb. 9 to discuss changes to the resolution. A vote on revision is scheduled for March 2.