Hamtramck schools become ‘safe havens’ from Trump orders

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Hamtramck in the headline.

Hamtramck — Jody Gordon’s fifth-grade class buzzes with math terms like imperfect fractions and numerators. An American flag hangs above the chalkboard, and students read books like “Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer.”

The Dickinson East Elementary School class could be almost any public school classroom in America. Except for the 10 girls in this classroom of 28 students who wear a hijab, the head covering worn in public by some Muslim girls and women. Three countries besides the United States are represented among the nationalities of Gordon’s students — Yemen, Bosnia and Bangladesh.

Such ethnic diversity is common in Hamtramck, where immigrant children comprise 45 percent of the student population.

Many at Dickinson East come from Yemen, which is among seven mostly Muslim nations that President Donald Trump has targeted in his travel ban, blocked by the courts but being retooled by the White House. That’s caused concern from parents who are dealing with deportation fears.

The policy also bans immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Syria.

Hamtramck officials are attempting to quell those concerns by designating district schools as “safe havens,” providing students and their families with community resources and access to legal services organizations.

“All Hamtramck schools are safe havens with a commitment to help all immigrant families connect with the needed resources to avoid deportation,” said Superintendent Thomas Niczay. The school board passed a resolution with the designation in January, before Trump took office.

Safe haven status, however, does not provide any kind of legal protection and does not go as far as so-called “sanctuary” cities and public college campuses, where officials refuse to cooperate with federal authorities when they identify undocumented immigrants.

“As a board and a school district, we thought ahead and wanted to have a resolution in place to make our community know that whatever happens after January, Hamtramck Public Schools will be home away from home for their children,” said Hamtramck school board secretary Salah Hadwan, whose family emigrated from Yemem.

“The community members in Hamtramck understand they don’t have to fear anything when they have many people who are here to support and be their voices in a time of need,” she said, adding any families who have stepped forward with concerns have received assistance.

Michigan education officials are unaware of the number of school districts in the state with “safe haven” or “sanctuary” status, though it is a topic of concern among some Metro Detroit public school systems.

“We don’t track sanctuary schools,” said William DiSessa, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education. “It's a local decision, and if a school board so decides, it would do so by declaration or resolution.”

He noted that while those designations offer no real legal protection, they “can help assure students and families that the district intends to uphold existing protections — namely federal law requiring public school districts to educate all students regardless of their immigration status or their parents’ immigration statuses.”

At least a few Michigan school districts are pondering some sort of safety net for immigrant students.

In Dearborn, which also has a large student immigration population, the school board is discussing the creation of safe haven schools, said David Mustonen, a school district spokesman. The district did not have figures available on the number of immigrant students in its classrooms.

“Our Board of Education members are also the trustees for Henry Ford College,” Mustonen said. “They are currently discussing this with the administration at the college.”

The Henry Ford board has referred the issue to its policy committee for further consideration, said Gary Erwin, a college spokesman.

“The board is taking a thoughtful approach to this subject and will examine this issue very carefully, as it does for all matters,” Erwin said. “As a result, the board will act in the best interests of all our students. At this time, there is no time line regarding the results of the Board Policy Committee’s work.”

None of the schools in Detroit Public Schools Community District, the state’s largest school district, have been designated safe havens or sanctuaries, but spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson stressed the importance of public education for all students.

“It is the right of every child, regardless of immigration status, to access a free public K-12 education. Detroit Public Schools Community District welcomes all student who are residents of the city of Detroit to attend its schools regardless of the student’s or the students’ parent’s immigration status,” Wilson said in a statement.

The district’s teachers union, however, doesn’t think the district’s approach is strong enough.

“Throughout the country, ICE (U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement) agents are following students home from bus stops, undocumented parents are being ripped away from their U.S. citizen children and the families in our city are scared,” said Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. “That is why the Detroit Federation of Teachers and our members are focused on making sure that our school buildings are safe and welcoming places for all students — despite color, creed or citizenship status.”

A climate of uncertainty persists among immigrant families, she said.

“If we don’t stand up for our students, who will? If we don’t fight back against these sickening ICE tactics, who will? And most importantly, if we don’t provide resources for the students and families we serve, we could risk them being hurt, harmed or, worst, deported,” she said. “Every student is important.”

Critics argue that any kind of protective status for cities or schools can create a haven for those who are not law-abiding citizens.

State Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, is among those who oppose any kind of protection and helped sponsor House Bill 4105, which calls for the state “to cut funding to government entities that harbor or otherwise protect illegal immigrants.”

“Stop purporting these measures as attacks on immigrants who are legal citizens,” he said, referring to the efforts of the Trump administration. “These measures are directed at undocumented or otherwise illegal immigrants.”

Two of Hamtramck school board trustee Moortadha Obaid’s four children attend school in the district. Obaid was born in Yemen and immigrated to the United States when he was 14.

He said he is “very concerned” about Trump's proposed travel ban because “Yemen is one of those countries and we do have families that are trying to come to the USA, and the ban will affect us to be together with our families in the future.”

Dickinson East Elementary principal Christopher Vraniak sees up close the struggles faced by immigrant families.

“We serve a diverse community here in Hamtramck and have not had issues with safety from any of the children or parents that we service,” he said. “On a daily basis, I get to see students and families who work hard and who are proud of their opportunity in our country.

“Many of these people come from the very difficult, war-torn situation in Yemen and have very few options. It hurts to know that we may no longer be helping people who desperately need it.”