School districts look to lessons from immigration raid ten years ago in planning for the future

March 28, 2017, 6:45 a.m. ·

Grand Island Public Schools District is reflecting on the events of ten years ago in determining how they would handle a student's parent(s) being apprehended in an immigration raid. (Photo by Ben Bohall, NET News)

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Nebraska school districts have concerns over changing immigration policy. What role will a school play if a student’s parents are apprehended in a raid? A few are looking back to a similar event ten years ago for answers.

In the basement of the Malone Community Center in Lincoln, immigration lawyer Max Greaves is giving a presentation on all things immigration. A small, diverse group listens as Greaves covers everything from how to file for citizenship to an increasingly popular topic these days: knowing your rights if you’re apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

“They just had question after question… People are so afraid right now,” Greaves said.

Nebraska Appleseed and the Center for Legal Immigration and Assistance held a forum on immigrant and refugee rights. Topics included deportation and how families are affected. (Photo by Ben Bohall, NET News)

Greaves is director of the Center for Legal Immigration Assistance or CLIA. CLIA and the advocacy group Nebraska Appleseed have been putting on a series of town hall meetings like this one to try to alleviate concerns about deportation. But one of the first things people tend to ask about is not what happens to themselves if they’re detained or deported, but their kids.

“We’ve talked to parents who fear they may be detained. We’ve talked to them about determining who would watch their children," Greaves said.

Steve Joel is superintendent of Lincoln Public Schools and this is a situation he knows all too well. On the morning of December 12, 2006, he was on his way to work as superintendent of Grand Island Public Schools when he got a call that would turn his world upside down.

“My phone rang and it was the police chief. He said, ‘I can’t give you any details, but I just want you to know there’s a federal event occurring at the packing plant that’s going to be very, very disruptive to the community.’ Then he hung up. So I knew then that a raid had occurred," Joel recalled.

ICE agents had descended on a packing plant owned by Swift & Company. More than 250 workers were arrested on suspicion of being in the country illegally. The raids made national news as Joel and his staff scrambled to ensure the hundreds of students whose parents might have been apprehended, were all accounted for and safe.

“By ten o’clock in the morning, all heck had broken lose in the community and people were demanding answers. The place they were coming for answers was the district office in Grand Island," Joel said. "That was a very hard spot for us to be in because we didn’t have any answers.”

Later in the day, Joel says he and his staff had established 30 to 40 students were without a guardian by the end of the day as a result of the raids. They created a triage of sorts to provide food, shelter, and supervision to the students. And they were largely credited with doing a good job of handling an unprecedented event

“It was pretty much the largest worksite operation ICE ever did, or has ever done since,” said Randy Capps, director of research at the Migration Policy Institute.

Capps has co-authored several studies taking a look at the psychological effects of raids on the children of immigrants detained. Grand Island is one of the sites he’s studied extensively.

“We looked at how the kids were doing in school. As in a lot of the other sites we looked at, the local schools in Grand Island were very supportive of children who had parents who had been picked up. Actually, many of the children continued to do well in school, but some of them had difficulties," Capps said.

That’s something Grand Island educators are conscious of today.

Kris Schneider is director of federal programs for GIPS. Today, she’s paying a visit to different English Language Learning classrooms at Howard Elementary, a school with a population that’s 90 percent Hispanic. She says the district is in the midst of establishing its own policy in the event of a similar situation to 2006.

“We have a plan and response for any student that’s displaced but a raid is obviously on a much grander scale so you have to have protocols and a plan,” Schneider said.

Schneider said how Joel handled the events a decade ago has become something of a rule of thumb, and it’s something they strongly reference when developing a current plan.

"Every student was safe that day and that was huge, especially when it was on the fly,” Schneider said.

Now as superintendent of Lincoln Public Schools, which is also a diverse district, Joel says he doesn’t think a raid of the same scale will occur any time soon. However, he says it remains a topic of conversation among superintendents across the state. Last month, The Omaha Public Schools board voted the school district will not turn over information on a student or family’s immigration status to federal authorities without a court order. Joel says he’d do what he’s advised other superintendents to do if faced with a raid again -- put politics aside and just focus on the students.

“I’ve deliberately avoided getting into the politics of immigration because that’s not my battle," Joel said. "My battle is if they show up in school then we love them, we care about them, we’re going to give them what we have, and we’re going to do everything in our power to help them be successful.”