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Critics slap school official over deportation advice

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — A west Michigan school superintendent and civil rights advocates are at odds over whether the school leader’s meeting this year with federal immigration authorities resulted in improper advice for school staff about potential deportations.

Dr. Brian Davis is the current superintendent of Holland Public Schools

In a March 5 email, Holland Public Schools Superintendent Brian Davis told school district staff that residents must open the door when officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement knock — something that immigrant rights and civil liberties groups urge against without a proper warrant. About 23 percent of the city’s nearly 34,000 residents are of Hispanic or Latino descent, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

Davis wrote that staff and families in the midst of a raid should open the door because “the arrest has to be made,” according to documents obtained through a Detroit News open records request.

“I was also assured that these two branches enforce the law with the highest degree of humanity and sensitivity,” he wrote. “There are not ‘raids’ per say as some reports might indicate and doors are not automatically beaten down.”

The superintendent’s advice raised concern with a local immigrant rights group, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the Michigan Civil Rights Department. An ICE spokesman said agency officials regularly meet with local leaders to discuss immigration enforcement in Michigan, and some immigrant advocates and civil liberty groups fear the agency is asking local leaders to encourage residents to let officers into their homes even when they don’t have to.

Miriam Aukerman

ICE misled Davis and others at the March 3 meeting in Holland, said ACLU of Michigan staff attorney Miriam Aukerman.

“ICE falsely informed Holland school officials that immigrant families should allow deportation agents into their own homes — when in fact immigration agents do not have the right to enter without a criminal warrant, which they rarely have,” Aukerman said. “We urge school officials and other local leaders to get the facts.”

The meeting and Davis’ email helped prompt a March 31 letter from state Civil Rights Director Augustin Arbulu and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Whiston warning Gov. Rick Snyder, legislators, school officials and others across the state about the potential for schools to be embroiled in President Donald Trump’s aggressive immigration enforcement directives.

The meeting was scheduled to combat “dangerous misinformation that ICE was conducting ‘roundups and raids’ ” after an identity fraud arrest in Holland on Feb. 14, said Khaalid Walls, ICE spokesman for the Northeastern U.S.

Maria Melendez-Espinosa was indicted on six counts related to identity theft and the case is pending in federal court, said Walls, who added the arrest was “widely misrepresented by some as an ‘immigration raid’ when, in reality, it was a federal criminal enforcement action.”

ICE regularly meets with local leaders “to inform the public about the agency’s ... policy and procedures and, more importantly, to dispel the many misconceptions that exist,” he said.

ICE spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez said in March that raids can take place at schools and other “sensitive locations” in certain circumstances, although they aren’t part of ICE’s regular enforcement practices.

ICE encourages residents to let officers into their homes regardless of whether they have a warrant requiring such action, Walls said. Criminal warrants allow officers entry without consent; administrative warrants do not.

“In the context of any law enforcement action, we would certainly encourage individuals to obey a lawful request from an officer or a special agent in possession of an administrative or criminal arrest warrant,” Walls said.

State warning

The Holland superintendent’s email advice alarmed Arbulu and Sarah Yore-Van Oosterhout, director of the Holland-based Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates. Oosterhout accused ICE officials of portraying themselves at the meeting as “humanitarian” and lobbying to get Holland residents to open their homes to agents.

“I think it’s like a deliberate campaign that they’re on right now,” Oosterhout said.

On March 3, Davis met with an unidentified U.S. Department of Homeland Security official and Valentina Seeley, a community relations officer for ICE, said Esther Fifelski, Holland’s Human Relations Commission coordinator. At the meeting were Ottawa County Sheriff Steve Kempker, Mayor Nancy DeBoer, Holland’s police chief Matt Messer and Roberto Jara from Latin Americans United for Progress, Fifelski said.

Davis told The News in an interview this week that he went to find out how schools might be involved, if local law enforcement would contact him if a student’s parents were detained by ICE and whether schools and bus stops were still protected from raids. They usually are, according to ICE.

He said his email was relaying what he learned at the meeting and through ICE’s website, adding that he wanted to inform staff what they should do when schools are involved in immigration enforcement actions.

“Specifically, I wanted to strongly encourage my employees to avoid giving out legal advice to anyone facing the complex legal issue of immigration enforcement,” Davis told The Detroit News.

Information battle

In his staff email, the Holland superintendent directed district employees to “refer persons with questions about immigration enforcement to appropriate legal counsel or local nonprofit agencies.”

Davis also described in the email the difference between “Enforcement and Removal Operations” and “Homeland Security Investigations,” and said raids could occur at schools and other “sensitive locations” if officials have “written supervisory approval or exigent circumstances.”

The email contained “the best information that I had at the time and (I) wanted to let them know that there are individuals in the community who are working to assist in communication and advocacy,” he said.

But Arbulu and Whiston later circulated their statewide letter warning that schools should “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 state civil rights department director said he was concerned that Davis may have provided inaccurate information to school employees.

“I would not recommend that a superintendent go there without having done some homework,” Arbulu said. “I think there is difference of perspective between ICE and groups out there who work with the undocumented community, and they have different recommendations, different approaches.”

Civil rights staff also met with ICE officials after he and Whiston sent the letter last month to discuss ICE’s prerogatives at schools, he said.

“They have a special interest, I think, around schools,” Arbulu said.