Detroit superintendent: 'ICE isn't allowed in our schools'

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit —  The superintendent of Detroit's schools is reassuring parents and teachers that the district won't allow immigration agents access to schools or campuses.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District is committed to protecting students' right to an education regardless of their or their family's immigration status, Superintended Nikolai Vitti said. 

Dr. Nikolai Vitti, right, talks to Madison Marshall, 8, about her class work and first day of school. Dr. Nikolai Vitti, Superintendent of Detroit Public Schools visits the students at Edmonson Elementary school on September 3, 2019, Detroit, Mi.

"School personnel have been directed not to allow any officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol or other federal immigration enforcement agencies access to our school buildings or grounds, school events, or information about our students," Vitti said in a recent letter to parents.

The establishment of a Sanctuary District Policy, passed by the school board in August, comes weeks after a massive immigration raid in Mississippi led to the arrests of hundreds of immigrants. About 150 students were absent from the second day of school in Mississippi districts after the raids.

"There have been families targeted, rounded up and taken away," Vitti said. "It’s disgusting that we’re even talking about that. This isn’t normal. We want to protect our children, families. It’s disheartening and distracting. I wish people would realize these are children, what is best for individual children who have nothing to do with the politics."

Under ICE policy, areas including schools, medical care facilities, places of worship, funerals, weddings, parades and marches are treated as "sensitive locations."

From left, Dr. Nikolai Vitti talks to Zion Doniver, 7, about her goals for this school year. Ma' Laya Barnes, 8.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti, Superintendent of Detroit Public Schools visits the students at Edmonson Elementary school on September 3, 2019, Detroit, Mi.

ICE spokesman Khaalid Walls said officials have not undertaken enforcement actions at Michigan schools and have no plans to do so.

"Current ICE policy directs agency personnel to avoid conducting enforcement activities at sensitive locations unless they have prior approval from an appropriate supervisory official or in the event of exigent circumstances," he said. "The locations specified in the guidance include schools, places of worship, and hospitals."

But that stance matters little to district teacher Nina Chacker, who works with children who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The sanctuary policy, she said, is "absolutely necessary."

"Regardless of what ICE may be allowed to do by law, it's important to send a message to our students and say that we're on their side, that this is a safe place because for them... there's not a lot of places where we can say ICE can't come in here," she said.

School should be a haven for students, Vitti said, where they should not have to worry about politics. 

"We see this with our children, teenagers, parents. This is coming up time and time again," Vitti said. "If you’re not close to (the immigration issue), it seems like an abstraction, but if you are, it’s a real threat and many Americans don’t understand.

"We took a stance because students should be able to be themselves regardless of race, religion, gender, sexuality and status."

The district held a community meeting Aug. 27 to explain the new sanctuary policy and gain parents' trust so they would be involved in school functions. Translators were available for five most common languages in the district: Arabic, American Sign Language, Bengali, Hmong and Spanish.

Vitti said the district is reaching beyond school boundaries to host community meetings so students and parents will understand their constitutional rights anywhere in the city.

"(ICE is) not allowed past our doors, and if they do, we'll get involved, and it will start with me," he said. "We want to go out and explain it and use our community partners to explain what are their rights if they’re walking to or from school or wherever they are."

Chacker, who teaches elementary-age students from around the city, said the lowest point in her career was having to tell one of her fourth-grade pupils that his father was picked up by ICE after he left work the day before. 

The mother was having trouble explaining what happened and asked Chacker to step in.

"I had to be the one to explain to him and put things at his level because he's prominently a (language) signer," she said.

"It was horrifying. I had worked with the family for years and he had no idea why his dad didn’t come home the day before and was freaking out."

After President Donald Trump took office, then-ICE acting director Thomas Homan declared that ICE would try to increase all work site enforcement actions by 400%, according to the Associated Press.

ICE succeeded almost across the board. According to statistics the agency released in December, it quadrupled the number of investigations it opened and audits of paperwork submitted by employees to get hired in fiscal year 2017-18, the Associated Press reported. It made 2,304 arrests in work site cases, seven times as many as the previous year. 

FILE -- Dr. Nikolai Vitti, right, listen to Micah Broughton, 7, as he talks about his sedimentary rock collection during the first day of classes at Edmonson elementary school.  Dr. Nikolai Vitti, Superintendent of Detroit Public Schools visits the students at Edmonson Elementary school on September 3, 2019, Detroit, Mi.

In August, 680 people were arrested in the Mississippi raids. Scott County School District Superintendent Tony McGee said some longtime teachers told him that the raid in their community "was by far the worst day they have ever spent as educators."

The Mississippi school district has 4,000 students; about 30% are Latino.

Chacker said she agrees with the sanctuary policy not only as a teacher but as a parent whose son attends the district.

"ICE has preyed on our schools to arrest parents, and it's traumatic for children that ICE has had a presence in their lives," Chacker said. 

The policy to affirm the district's status as a "welcoming district for all students" isn't the first time a school district has tried to quell worries about immigration raids. Hamtramck schools declared their district a safe haven after Trump's travel ban in 2017. 

More than 20 school districts across the U.S. have adopted similar resolutions, including Chicago Public Schools, Denver Public Schools; Pittsburgh Public Schools; the Houston Independent School District Board of Education; the School District for Eugene, Oregon; the Austin Independent School District, the Los Angeles School Board, and the Santa Fe Board of Education.

The language in their resolutions varies, but most focus on the constitutional right of all children in the country to attend public primary and secondary schools and commit to protecting students by keeping their records confidential where allowed by applicable federal, state and local law.

"We have to do well in literacy, math, promote graduation, but sometimes school districts forget if you’re not addressing the child’s life as a whole and being empathetic on what’s happening beyond academic, the child can't excel," Vitti said. "We care about you as a whole child."

Misha Stallworth, a Detroit school board member, said the sanctuary policy was the first initiative she advanced after being elected in 2017.

"We started with a safe zone resolution, and I'm proud to say that as chair of the Policy Committee, it is now an adopted sanctuary district policy," she tweeted at the community meeting in August.

 "I help #studentsrise by using policy to keep them safe and supported in our buildings, no matter their immigration status," she tweeted.

Twitter, @SarahRahal_