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Lansing — A U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokesman said Friday that Michigan officials who warned that schools in the state could be swept up in President Donald Trump’s more aggressive immigration enforcement directives “are unnecessarily causing fear and confusion.”

David Lapan of Homeland Security said in an email that schools would “absolutely not” be used to help the department or U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement identify and deport undocumented immigrants.

“DHS has a sensitive locations policy that ICE operations won’t be conducted in schools, churches or hospitals,” Lapan said. “Those who suggest otherwise are unnecessarily causing fear and confusion.”

The federal rebuke came after Michigan’s state superintendent of public instruction and civil rights director urged in a letter released Friday that schools “plan now for the possibility that law enforcement might one day seek your school’s assistance” to find, detain and deport undocumented immigrants, a move they called illegal.

The letter was sent to Gov. Rick Snyder, state legislators, educators across Michigan and others. It noted that “reports and rumors are circulating” that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is tapping local law enforcement officers and schools to help deport immigrants without proper documentation.

Superintendent Brian Whiston and Civil Rights Department Director Agustin Arbulu argue that using the state’s schools to find illegal immigrants likely violates the Michigan Eliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act “as well as other state and federal civil rights laws.”

Arbulu said at least one Michigan school district — which he declined to identify — has communicated with an immigration enforcement official in some fashion. Arbulu declined to share any more details about the conversation or what information district officials may have shared with immigration officials.

Arbulu said he stands by the letter and added, “Well, I’m not going to get into a battle of words with DHS, with the Department of Homeland Security.”

ICE spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez agreed that the department’s “sensitive locations policy ... remains in effect,” but noted that schools could be involved in ICE operations with proper authorization.

“The ICE sensitive locations policy, which remains in effect, provides that enforcement actions at sensitive locations should generally be avoided, and require either prior approval from an appropriate supervisory official or exigent circumstances necessitating immediate action,” Rodriguez said in an email.

In the letter, Whiston and Arbulu give advice to educators about how to proceed when law enforcement arrests families of illegal immigrants.

“Share educational resources with families in your district that enhance family emergency preparedness, in the event of an abrupt separation of a family unit, including a list of available resources with expertise in the applicable laws. Under no circumstances provide students or families with any legal advice,” according to the letter.

The letter came after Trump in late January signed an executive order directing U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to negotiate agreements with each state so local law enforcement officials are empowered to be immigrant enforcement officers.

Snyder pushed back then against Trump’s initiative to use state and local police officers to help enforce the nation’s immigration laws.

“I don’t view that as one of their primary functions,” Snyder said at the time. “We’re actually doing very well in terms of bringing violent crime down within the state of Michigan. And we’re gonna work hard on continuing to make Michigan a safer place.”

A Snyder spokeswoman added then that the order would be reviewed “to understand its impact in Michigan.”

The governor would review any state obligation or impact to schools if there’s a federal directive, Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said Friday.

“But at this point, if it’s just speculation, we’re not going to get into it until we have a directive,” Heaton said.

Whiston, selected by a then-Democrat-dominated State Board of Education and Arbulu, hired by the state's Civil Rights Commission, contend that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling and subsequent guidance from the U.S. Department of Education “prohibit schools from denying undocumented children and young adults access to a public education on account of their immigration status.”

“In fact, Michigan law requires that undocumented students attend school until they reach a mandated age,” the letter reads. “Within Michigan’s schools, (the state’s civil rights act) expressly forbids discrimination based on race or national origin and guarantees the full and equal enjoyment of public services and accommodations,” it continues.

Trump complained during the campaign that the Democratic Obama administration was less aggressive about apprehending immigrants residing illegally in the country and deporting them, especially ones who committed crimes.

“It is the policy of the executive branch to empower State and local law enforcement agencies across the country to perform the functions of an immigration officer in the interior of the United States to the maximum extent permitted by law,” Trump’s order said.

Snyder has promoted Michigan as being welcoming to immigrants and refugees.

mgerstein@detroitnews.com

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