Molly Sweeney of 482Forward, Cristian Aranda, Lindsey Matson of MIStudentsDream and Lucy Ruiz are working on policy change in Detroit schools. (Photo from Lindsey Matson)

This spring, when most children were rejoicing at the end of a school day, a group of youth organizers held community meetings via Zoom to help keep Detroit schools safe for undocumented families. 

Saul Roman-Ramirez, 16, is a student at Cesar Chavez Academy, a charter school on Detroit’s Southwest side and an organizer for MIStudentsDream. He is helping parents, teachers and administrators understand the importance of making all schools, including charters, sanctuary schools.

Ramirez and other organizers are advocating for a slate of changes that include new ID rules, expanded language access and a ban on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents seeking immigration information at schools. 

Ramirez believes Detroit’s students and families deserve policy change and community support.

“I want students to feel safe at school. … My school is 98% Latino, many are immigrants,” said Ramirez. “We are targeted, and I want to keep everyone safe from ICE. If parents get deported, kids can’t focus on school. When families are separated, oftentimes, kids go down a really dark path.” 

Parents and students celebrated when the Detroit Public Schools Community District became a sanctuary district in 2019 and stopped allowing Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Customs and Border Patrol agents on school campuses without a search warrant or to collect student information on immigration status.

Michigan is considered an “ICE Border Zone” due to the state’s proximity to the Canadian border. This means federal agents do not have to recognize the Fourth Amendment and are legally allowed to conduct random searches and seizures. 

Michigan has the second highest ICE arrest rate in the country, and federal agents are known to target school pickups and dropoffs to detain, and often eventually deport, undocumented family members taking children to and from school. 

Youth organizers Yaritza Campos and Kassandra Negrete discuss the need for sanctuary schools. (Screenshot)

The DPSCD decision in 2019 was a relief for many immigrants and their families, however, local community organizers said the fight is far from over. With the growing number of charter schools, groups like MIStudentsDream, 482Forward and TANN (Tomando Action Para Nuestros Niños) have been working to make all schools in Detroit — including charters — sanctuary schools and are increasingly putting pressure on charter school boards.

According to Lindsey Matson from Congress of Communities, “a lot of charter schools have passed welcoming resolutions, but they haven’t done anything as far as real policy change goes.” 

Charter schools are “free, independently operated public schools that have the flexibility and autonomy to meet their students’ needs,” said Buddy Moorehouse, vice president of public relations and media at the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

Charter schools also operate as their own district. Each school has their own board and policy changes are normally made on a school by school basis rather than for all schools all at once. 

“There wouldn’t be any difference in a charter school declaring itself a sanctuary school on an individual basis like DPSCD did,” said Moorehouse, who isn’t personally aware of any charter schools in Michigan having sanctuary status. 

Student and community organizers are also lobbying DPSCD for additional changes, including “cultural competence” training for security guards and new identification rules. 

In Michigan, undocumented people don’t have the right to apply for state ID or driver’s licenses.

“Schools have been putting in policies to keep kids safe, but ended up implementing policies that left parents out,” said Sandy Gaytan, a community organizer with Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation. “They don’t understand why people don’t have a state ID, and it’s creating a hostile environment for undocumented students and families.” 

“Parent groups at Congress of Communities and Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation have worked with youth to get a lot done,” said Yaritza Campos, 16,  a member of MIStudentsDream and an 11th-grader at Hope of Detroit Academy, a charter school. “But we still have more to do.”

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