Nineteen-year-old Maybelline Perez will be this year’s valedictorian of East Boston High School. But at a Boston city council hearing Tuesday, she recounted a different chapter of her childhood — growing up in a gang-ridden part of El Salvador, where she said her family faced frequent threats to their lives.
Perez’s parents decided to move their family to the United States in 2010 but now, she said, they face a new kind of threat: deportation.
Perez was one of several immigrants offering testimony in favor of an ordinance that would designate Boston public schools as “sanctuary schools.” The measure seeks to prevent those schools from collecting information about students’ immigration statuses, sharing any information voluntarily with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and allowing ICE agents onto school property without a warrant.
ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer said in a statement agency policy prevents them from conducting “law enforcement operations” at schools. “ICE only conducts targeted enforcement, meaning we’re looking for very specific people,” he said. “And there would be no need to endanger public safety by doing so at a sensitive location such as a school.”
But, noting the volatility of immigration policies and procedures under President Trump, supporters of the ordinance said they are worried that ICE’s policy may change.
Frances Esparza, the assistant superintendent of BPS’s Office of English Language Learners, told hearing attendees that current policy instructs teachers to contact BPS officials, the Boston Police Department, and BPS legal advisers if approached by an ICE agent. Those officials will determine whether the agent has a valid warrant.
The school district does not keep track of students’ immigration status, so the number of unauthorized immigrant students is unknown. At the hearing, city officials said over 50 percent of BPS students have at least one foreign-born parent.
City Councilor Tito Jackson, who has pushed for the hearing on sanctuary schools for months, said that his proposal would codify the existing BPS policy. “The reason why we’re here is that the Boston School Committee did not codify this,” said Jackson, who is challenging Mayor Martin J. Walsh in this fall’s mayoral election.
Representatives from the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, the Boston Teachers Union, the American Civil Liberties Union, and parents of students also testified in support of the measure.
Much of Tuesday’s discussion revolved around training teachers and staff on what to do if ICE officers approached them. At the hearing, teachers said they had not received such training and felt ill-equipped to respond to their students’ concerns. Esparza said the school system has offered professional development workshops and circulated a memo on the issue to employees, but has not mandated training.
Alejandra St. Guillen, director of Walsh’s Office of Immigrant Advancement, said the mayor’s office is committed to supporting the city’s immigrants, but “important revisions would be needed to provide additional clarity” on Jackson’s ordinance. St. Guillen did not specify what those revisions would be.
In order for the ordinance to become law, the chair of the Council Committee on Government Operations must recommend that it pass, a majority of councilors must concur, and Walsh must not veto the measure.
Boston’s 2014 Trust Act prevents local law enforcement officers from handing nonviolent immigrants over to federal immigration agents, but it does not explicitly use the word “sanctuary.” Although the term’s legal weight is unclear, Jackson and the ordinance’s supporters say using “sanctuary” would carry an important symbolic meaning for immigrant students and families.
“I call ourselves a ‘sanctuary city,’ and I think that we should be stepping up as a sanctuary and our sanctuary should be our schools,” Jackson said.
Boston was one of five Massachusetts cities singled out by the Department of Homeland Security in March as cities that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities. US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has since narrowed the Justice Department definition of sanctuary jurisdictions.