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On Tuesday, San Antonio Independent School District took up specific measures in response to Texas’ so-called “anti-sanctuary cities” law, Senate Bill 4, when it released a handbook detailing what students and families should expect during the law’s implementation.
Since the legislation’s passage, the State of Texas and various major cities, including San Antonio, have battled in court over its constitutionality. Last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that most provisions of the law, which permits local law enforcement officers to question the immigration status of individuals who have been detained or arrested, can remain in effect while the case continues through court.
The handbook addresses questions and concerns that undocumented SAISD parents and students may have on how the law’s implementation could affect them.
For example, they may not realize that the SB 4 law does not apply to PreK-12 school districts or open-enrollment charter schools, which SAISD Board President Patti Radle described as the most important takeaway for students and their families.
Also important to know: SAISD police officers have no authority or the training to enforce a federal immigration law.
SAISD Police Chief Jose Curiel said this is the first handbook to address SB 4 that he has seen from a school district.
“For several months now, concerned citizens have asked whether the San Antonio Independent School District Police Department inquires the immigration status of students, faculty, and staff or if the SAISD Police Department is involved in the enforcement of federal immigration laws,” Curiel writes in the handbook. “In both cases, the answer is no.”
The handbook was created in conjunction with the SAISD Police Department and San Antonio Rising in Solidarity for Equity (SA RISE), a group that works for educational equity. It outlines how to deal with home visits from SAISD police officers, whether or not SAISD officers will arrest students, and how to report crimes without the fear of drawing attention from immigration officials.
Some portions of the handbook are translated into Spanish, but a large portion of it is printed only in English.
Rebecca Flores, a community organizer and member of a 300-person pro-immigrant coalition, said she would like to see some changes to the handbook. The entire handbook should be offered in Spanish as well as English, she said.
While the majority of the handbook seeks to ease the concerns of undocumented community members who might fear reporting crimes or the presence of police following the enforcement of SB 4, the handbook does seem to highlight the holes in the system that could bring immigrants face to face with the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The handbook notes that SAISD police officers sometimes have to work with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, San Antonio Police Department, and ICE when a crime occurs. District officers might be required to collaborate with these groups, for example, when students are arrested for possession of a handgun, driving without a license, fighting, bullying, and abuse, and other charges, according to the handbook.
Flores said this portion of the handbook is also problematic.
“Many undocumented students [who drive] don’t have a driver’s license, and you’re going to arrest them for that?” she asked. Flores said not having a driver’s license or fighting in schools should not merit an arrest, which could lead to a student’s deportation.
However, there is only so much SAISD police can do absent a change in state law, Curiel said. Driving without a valid driver’s license is against state law, not SAISD policy, he added.
The handbook emphasizes that district police cannot detain, arrest, search, or stop a person based solely on his or her race or ethnicity. It also notes SAISD police officers cannot inquire about the immigration status of any individual, including SAISD students, except as permitted by law. This legal exception applies when someone has been a victim or witness of a crime, Curiel said. In this case, officers might sense an individual doesn’t want to identify him- or herself.
Curiel said officers could then ask about a person’s immigration status, but would only use this information to investigate the offense or provide the victim or witness with information about federal visas designed to protect those who assist law enforcement.
While Flores said she worries that federal immigration officers will try to enter school campuses, the handbook says SAISD police officers will verify the identification and validity of any enforcement officer requesting entry to district property for the enforcement of state, local, or federal law.
All district officers will refer personnel requesting entry to SAISD property for the purpose of enforcing laws to Curiel or one of his deputies, the handbook states.
Flores said her coalition hopes to submit a letter to the district by the end of this week with suggested improvements to the handbook. Curiel called the handbook a “first step” in this effort, and said he is open to improving the guide to be more helpful to SAISD families.
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez said this effort is important due to the current political climate.
“It is not a friendly state toward immigrants,” Martinez said, adding that he has seen students refuse to fill out financial aid forms because they are so afraid of being detained based on their status. He said this kind of fear impacts students’ education.
Maria Rocha, an SAISD graduate who immigrated to the United States from Mexico, said safety is essential to providing students with quality education, adding that the handbook is about fostering the “extensive security our undocumented students deserve.”