Education

5 things to understand about LA Unified's stand for undocumented immigrant students

Young people wait in line to enter the office of The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) on August 15, 2012 in Los Angeles, California, on the first day of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. US authorities began taking applications for deferred deportations from undocumented immigrants brought here as children, an initiative that could benefit up to 1.7 million people, as long lines of applicants, many who have long feared separation from their families and deportation from the country they've always considered home, formed outside consulates, advocacy offices and law firms.
Young people wait in line to enter the office of The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) on August 15, 2012 in Los Angeles, California, on the first day of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. US authorities began taking applications for deferred deportations from undocumented immigrants brought here as children, an initiative that could benefit up to 1.7 million people, as long lines of applicants, many who have long feared separation from their families and deportation from the country they've always considered home, formed outside consulates, advocacy offices and law firms.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

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For the estimated 13 percent of the kids in California public schools who has at least one parent who's an undocumented immigrant — and the more than 245,000 children in the state who are undocumented themselves — President-elect Donald Trump's victory has raised big questions and stoked fears.

Trump has indicated he will take a harder line on illegal immigration, promising to step up deportations and cancel federal funding for sanctuary cities. There are few indications the new administration intends to bring this toughened immigration stance to public school campuses.

Still, last week, the Los Angeles Unified School Board drew a pre-emptive line in the sand.

Board members approved a resolution that vows the district will guard students' data against "any future policies or executive action" Trump might take "to the fullest extent provided by the law." It also reaffirmed the district's declaration that L.A. Unified campuses are "safe zones" off-limits to immigration enforcement agents.

But will the resolution have any real impact? And could L.A. Unified's stand for undocumented students put the district's own federal funding at risk? Here are five factors to consider:

First, some really important background: U.S. public schools cannot turn away students because of their immigration status. 

That's because of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1982 decision in Plyler v. Doe, in which justices ruled that denying undocumented students access to K-12 schools "imposes a lifetime hardship on a discrete class of children not accountable for their disabling status."

It's a mandate that comes at a cost. The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an advocacy group favoring stepped-up immigration enforcement, has estimated that teaching undocumented students costs California schools more than $3.3 billion annually; educating children whose parents are undocumented — a much larger group — costs billions more.

The federal government has tried to stop districts from discouraging undocumented students from enrolling in public schools. Will it stay that way? 

In 2014, the Obama administration sought to tamp down "student enrollment practices that may chill or discourage" undocumented kids from signing up for school. For instance, undocumented parents may not understand their child does not need a U.S. birth certificate to enroll in school or that schools cannot turn them away if they produce records showing their child wasn't born in the U.S.

But that's not red-letter law; it's just the current federal guidance, attorney Victor Leung of the ACLU of Southern California noted. "It's less than clear what the new administration's stance is going to be on those kinds of issues," Leung said.

L.A. Unified does not collect data on citizenship status — but the district does collect data that could be useful to immigration enforcement. 

For instance, the district's enrollment form asks for the child's country of birth. Even a students' English Learner status could be a tip-off, Leung said.

Enter the L.A. Unified school board's resolution. "We are not going to cooperate," said school board president Steve Zimmer in an interview Friday, "with federal immigration authorities who attempt in any way shape or form to use a school site as part of their enforcement activities."

Zimmer did hedge that answer in a few ways: he said the district would not obstruct an extraordinary investigation, such as into human trafficking. And what if agents came with warrants or subpoenas? "I'm going to leave the question of subpoenas right now to the lawyers."

Immigration agents don't raid schools — and there's "no evidence" that will change.

It's not clear whether L.A. Unified's "safe zones" policy could truly stop U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from raiding a campus if they chose.

But the district's stance hasn't been tested yet, in part because ICE policy forbids arrests, interviews, searches and some surveillance around "sensitive sites," including schools, except in "exigent circumstances." This is another Obama-era policy that the Trump administration could theoretically reverse.

But FAIR media director Ira Mehlman says there's "no evidence" that schools are likely to become targets for ICE agents under Trump — and, he said, that's fine. "The enforcement resources ought to be focused on work-site enforcement," Mehlman said, and "other sorts of things that go after employers who induce people come to the United States illegally because they’re offering jobs. What we need to do is change the mindset … [that] if you get to the United States, the federal government isn't going to enforce the law."

Trump has promised to cut off federal funding to sanctuary cities for their shielding of undocumented immigrants. Could he do the same to L.A. Unified? 

L.A. Unified will receive $713 million in total federal funding this school year — a fraction of its $7.6 billion budget.

National Immigration Law Center attorney Nicholas Espiritu has his doubts that Trump could successfully yank that funding, either from sanctuary cities or from school districts who don't follow some hypothetical immigration-related mandate.

"We know," Espiritu said, "that when other administrations have tried to use the pulling of funding as a coercive measure on states and localities in other contexts that it's been challenged and challenged successfully" — such as when the Obama administration attempted to coax states into joining an expansion of Medicaid — "and we think an attempt to do that in an education context would be similarly problematic."

It's worth noting federal education officials have threatened to pull funding from states that pass laws that they find to conflict with federal law. For instance, last May, the feds threatened to pull $861 million in education funding from North Carolina over a state law requiring transgender individuals to use bathrooms that match the sex they were assigned at birth. The matter is still unresolved.