DMI Blog

Corinne Ramey

Immigration Officials Turn to Schoolyard Bullying

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials in California have stooped to a new, almost unbelievable low: intimidating schoolchildren.

Allow me to state the obvious: schools should be safe. And they should feel safe for the kids, their parents, and the teachers and staff who work there. But for the students at four Oakland schools and Berkley High School on Wednesday, school felt anything but safe. That day, rumors spread throughout the schools that ICE were nearby, possibly planning raids at the schools. Parents text-messaged their kids, warning them that ICE agents were close by so that the undocumented parents couldn't come to the schools to pick their children up. The Berkley school district became so overwhelmed with calls that they set up an automated voice message for parents, which according to the San Francisco Chronicle, stated that the administration would "not allow any child to be taken away from the school." The schools -- including Stonehurst Elementary, where immigration officials were parked across the street -- became a panic scene. Undocumented parents called friends and neighbors, asking them to pick up their children since the parents were afraid to come near the school. ICE spokespeople claimed that their intention was not to raid the schools but rather to make arrests at nearby locations.

Unfortunately, yesterday's Berkley and Oakland cases are not isolated incidents. ICE agents have routinely engaged in intimidation of workers -- both documented and undocumented -- and students. In Tucson, Arizona, a 17-year-old undocumented student at Catalina High Magnet School was arrested for possession of marijuana. Police came to the school, and then called the Border Control. When Border Control found out that the student was undocumented, they deported his father, who returned to Mexico accompanied by his wife and two sons.

The incident created an outrage in the school and community. The teenagers quoted in the Tucson Citizen article about the event state the facts that the adults around were apparently missing. "We think that shouldn't be allowed, because school is where we're supposed to be safe," said 16-year-old Mario Portillo. "No matter if you're an illegal alien, you have the right to an education." Eighteen-year-old Jorge Guerrero asked the somewhat obvious question, "How can we learn if we've scared the Border Patrol is going to come for us?" Araceli Sanchez, 14, said that she knew that the arrested student and his family were undocumented, but said that "he was just another student." And it was up to 14-year-old Ener Lopez to state the really obvious. "We should be safe in school," he said. Following a protest by more than 100 students in front of the Tucson Police Department headquarters, Tucson police have said that they will no longer call U.S. Border Patrol into schools or churches.

More recently, ICE agents in the raided 11 Taqueria El Balazo restaurants in the Bay Area, detaining 63 immigrant workers, including two 17-year-olds and a 15-year-old. Given the recent May Day protests by immigrant rights groups, it's unlikely that the timing of the raid was a mere coincidence. As Larisa Casillas, director of Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition, said, “I don’t think it is a coincidence that this happened a day after May Day. It wreaks havoc on the community." She sees the target as a strategic one. “When they hit a popular taqueria with a series of raids it sends a message, and our message back is that we need immigration reform. These are people who are working and contributing to the economic health of our region,” she said.

Casillas, I think, hits the nail on the head. Not only are these incidents -- both the school and taqueria raids -- likely part of a purposeful campaign to intimidate the Latino community, but in both cases the intimidation is bad not just for undocumented workers but for their communities at large. School raids cause widespread fear among students, parents, and teachers, and, at the very least, cause serious disruption in the ability of students to learn and feel safe in what should be a guaranteed safe environment. And, as Casillas says, immigrants -- even undocumented ones -- are vital to the economies of the regions where they live.

Immigrants make up 15% of the civilian workforce, and account for half of the labor force growth in the past 10 years, according to a White House report. They pay a significant amount of taxes and produce goods and provide services that are vital to the American middle class. They're vital to keeping our social security system afloat, pumping $6-7 billion a year into the Social Security system, most of which they can't claim because of their immigrant status. According to the same White House report, immigrants increase the earnings and productivity of native-born workers a significant amount, estimated at $37 billion a year. The bottom line is, decent, humane treatment of immigrants isn't just good for immigrants -- it's good for the current and aspiring American middle class.

This kind of conduct by ICE is incredibly destructive to families as well. If schools continue to be a scene of ICE intimidation, undocumented parents are less likely to send their native-born children to school, fearing that raids could result in families being deported. With immigrant families already being hit hard by the current recession and recent crackdowns on undocumented workers -- according to a recent Times article, remittances to Latin America have dropped significantly, yet another sign of the economic squeeze on immigrant families -- worries about deportation because of their kids attending schools are the last thing that immigrant families need.

Notably, it's not all bad. When reading news reports of the raids, in between all the eye-rolling at the fairly inane things that ICE agents said, I've been impressed by how supportive mayors and local officials have been of immigrant rights. "In my view, that is the ugly side of government," Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums said. "No way children should ever be treated to that kind of harassment and fear." Mayor Dellum said that Oakland should be free from raids. "As a sanctuary city," Dellums said, "we're all in unison. We don't want this type of intimidation. Immigrants are human beings, and need to be dealt with respect." Vice Mayor Larry Reid said that local officials were never told about the raids. "ICE just rolls in and tells our police department after the fact," he said. "The students are upset and crying. The school's administration said some of the kids are very shook up."

These local officials get it. When will ICE and the Border Control figure out that schoolyard bullying isn't an effective -- or humane, for that matter -- route to immigration reform?

Corinne Ramey: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 12:59 PM, May 08, 2008 in Immigration
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