Expanding Sanctuary in Our Schools

In our final post of the Expanded Sanctuary series, we look at how criminalization impacts young people in the school system. Read parts one and two.

Desk and chair with red apple on the desk.

Sanctuary Schools?

“We can’t say, ‘hey don’t let ICE on your campus’ and not call out over-policing of people of color on […] campuses. We can’t celebrate local police who might consider not working with ICE but who over-police and won’t make those same proclamations for other communities of color.”

Marisa Franco, director of Mijente quoted in The Nation

As the impact of Trump’s immigration policy and xenophobic rhetoric are felt across the country, including in our schools, a growing number of communities are pressing their local school districts to adopt sanctuary and “safe zone” policies to protect undocumented students. At a minimum, this means refusing to share data about a student’s immigration status with federal authorities, preventing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from entering school facilities, and other tried-and-true strategies.

Policies that criminalize people disproportionately impact youth of color, LGBTQI students, Muslim students, and youth with disabilities or cognitive differences. So long as school districts rely on excessively harsh discipline and the presence of law enforcement on campus, they will continue to place their immigrant students at risk.

While traditional sanctuary policies are a crucial first step, they do not address the larger problem of criminalization. Even in districts where schools have pledged to provide a level of sanctuary by not sharing student information with immigration authorities, a juvenile delinquency record can have serious consequences, including in any later contact with ICE, and schools that rely on the criminal justice system for discipline leave their undocumented students vulnerable.

This is why the concept of sanctuary must expand. In schools, this means implementing disciplinary practices that are grounded in restorative justice and respect young people’s ability to develop and learn from mistakes, rather than practices of exclusion and punishment that limit their futures.

The school-to-prison pipeline

School policies in the United States reflect larger social and political trends resulting in mass incarceration and over-policing. Students today, particularly students of color, often face a disciplinary system that would have been unthinkable twenty or thirty years ago. The presence of uniformed police has become routine on many campuses, and officers increasingly use criminal penalties to enforce school discipline.

These practices display a pattern of structural racism. Nationwide, more than half of students who are arrested at school or referred to law enforcement are people of color. Many arrests are for things that child development experts would regard as normal kid behavior. In one district in Louisiana, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented 562 school arrests in one year, many of them for such harmless and age-appropriate behavior as “yelling in the hallways.” One eighth-grader was allegedly arrested and detained for six days for throwing skittles on the school bus. 80% of those arrested were Black, even though Black students make up only 42% of the student body.

Referrals to law enforcement are one manifestation of the turn toward harsh discipline and “zero tolerance” in our schools; increasing use of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions are another. These practices cut short children’s education, erode their self-esteem, and place them into unstructured and unsafe environments that can ultimately lead to arrest or removal proceedings, what advocates call the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Intersections with other forms of discrimination

Discrimination based on disability, race, and youth intersect to magnify a child’s vulnerability. In many cases, children are criminalized simply for displaying symptoms of their disabilities. The Center for Public Integrity reports a case in which an 11-year Black student with autism was handcuffed and criminally charged after kicking a trash can at school. Police on campus are rarely trained to know how to work with children with cognitive differences and frequently resort to violent forms of physical restraint and seclusion that can have devastating consequences for a child.

Gender nonconforming and LGBTQI students also disproportionately bear the brunt of “zero tolerance” policies. The Gay Straight Alliance Network (GSAN) notes that, while LGBTQI youth make up about 6% of the population, they represent 15% of people in juvenile detention. Many queer youth report being penalized for not conforming to gender roles in school dress codes (such as boys bringing nail polish to school or wearing hair extensions) or blamed for their own bullying.

By a cruel irony, many of the anti-bullying provisions that schools have adopted in recent years to protect LGBTQI students from harassment actually increased their criminalization. The Advancement Project, Alliance for Economic Justice, and GSAN note in a joint report that in some cases, LGBTQI students have been expelled or suspended on anti-fighting or anti-bullying grounds even though they were defending themselves from violence. Such zero-tolerance policies often fail to recognize that students who are labeled as “bullies” may have been victims of violence themselves. Many “aggressive” students engage in negative survival strategies because the long-term failure of responsible adults to protect them from harm has left them with few options.

Solutions and a path forward

Zero tolerance and “anti-bullying” policies can deprive young people of a meaningful chance to learn from their mistakes. These systems do violence to their humanity and disregard their capacity to grow and learn. Providing real sanctuary in a school setting requires more than barring ICE officers at the door. It means reducing or eliminating a school’s reliance on all forms of law enforcement to maintain student discipline and replacing them with restorative practices that allow students to recognize harms they may have caused and to learn to do better. It means creating schools that perceive the worth and dignity of all students and the inestimable contribution each can make to the school environment.

Helpful practices to counter criminalization at school can be found in The Advancement Project’s Model School Discipline Policy and a joint report by The Advancement Project, GSAN, and the Equality Federation Institute called Power in Partnerships: Building Connections at the Intersections of Racial Justice and LGBTQ Movements to End the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Some guiding principles include:

  • Deferring wherever possible to restorative practices, rather than punishment, to address student misbehavior. These could include peer mediation, behavior coaching, anger management, or classroom peace circles, among others.
  • Ensuring that children who face serious disciplinary consequences have full due process and the resources they need to keep up with the curriculum.
  • Curbing the use of subjective disciplinary categories that lend themselves to unfair enforcement, such as “disorderly or disrespectful behavior.”
  • Reallocate funding dedicated to school police and surveillance to support staff, such as guidance counselors, social workers, nurses, and restorative justice facilitators.

Criminalization: Legalized Discrimination

Last month, I was privileged to attend the “Defend, Defy, Expand” conference in Philadelphia, organized by Mijente, BYP 100, the Undocublack Network, DRUM, and others, where we met leaders from Muslim, South Asian, Black, immigrant, Latinx, and trans communities, who are taking unprecedented action to build new alliances across multiple movements with the goal of advancing and expanding the concept of sanctuary. This means making our shared communities safer for all of us, in particular for those who are most at risk. At the heart of the expanded sanctuary concept is the need to end criminalization, a shared threat that extends across communities.

What is criminalization?

Simply put, “criminalization” refers to the stereotyping and treatment of whole communities as “criminal” or “terrorist,” rather than responding to the actions people take as individuals. The experience of being “criminalized” is something that at-risk communities – trans, undocumented, Muslim, and Black – have in common. For communities who directly encounter the immigration enforcement, criminal justice, and national security systems every day, the reality of this problem, and the need to combat it, are readily apparent.

How communities are criminalized

The Movement for Black Lives has brought national attention to the way in which Black neighborhoods are over-policed and subjected to unfair and invasive law enforcement tactics like “stop and frisk,” which violate constitutional rights and fuel mass incarceration. Similarly, Muslim people have faced racial profiling and invasive surveillance through various programs, including a notorious post-9/11 New York City Police Department program that infiltrated Muslim houses of worship with a network of informants and which was ultimately halted by court order because it violated civil rights protections.

Undocumented immigrants meanwhile are being increasingly threatened with federal criminal charges for “illegal entry,” “illegal reentry,” and other crimes that are related solely to immigration status, and which already make up a majority of federal criminal prosecutions nationwide. The current administration has even started threatening to lock up immigrant parents on “human trafficking” charges if they hire a coyote, or smuggler, to bring their children to the United States—even though this is often the only way for asylum-seekers and others to reach safety, since criminal networks control most of the border crossings.

Grassroots organizations like the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project describe the way in which transgender and gender non-conforming people are often profiled and harassed by police on the false assumption that they are sex workers. Stereotypes and prejudices about trans people as “dangerous” has likewise been central in recent attempts to roll back trans civil rights through various state “bathroom bills.” One recent ad campaign, funded by an anti-LGBTQI hate group in Texas, depicts trans people as sex offenders who will use gender inclusive bathroom policies to attack women and girls.

Trans people also face exceptionally high rates of housing and employment discrimination, which forces many into poverty and homelessness and leads, in turn, to what advocates describe as “crimes of survival.” These are offenses like loitering or public urination that while technically criminal offenses, are almost impossible to avoid for people who are denied a decent place to live and a chance for lawful employment.

Persecuting at-risk communities

The cruelest irony of criminalization is that it treats as dangerous the very people who are often most at risk. Black Muslim immigrants, including the large Somali refugee community in the United States, endure stigmatization as potential “terrorists” and “criminals” due to intersection of their multiple identities. Yet, they are themselves at grave risk of suffering terrorism and violence in the form of hate crimes for precisely this reason. Earlier this year, a group of white supremacists plotted to bomb an apartment complex because its residents were Somali immigrants. Fortunately, the plot was foiled before it could be carried out, but it is a terrifying reminder of the potential for violence set off by government policies that stereotype and stigmatize whole communities.

Politicians and lobbyists have long exploited the rhetoric of criminalization, often because there are powerful interests with a stake in maintaining systems of mass incarceration, detention, and deportation. For example, criminalization benefits the private prison industry; airlines that contract to carry out deportation flights; and international telecom companies that rely on the cheap labor of English-speaking deportees to work in call centers. The Trump administration has carried this discourse to a fever pitch, demanding a national “stop-and-frisk” policy on the campaign trail and creating an office to monitor crimes committed by “illegal immigrants,” as if offenses are somehow worse when committed by undocumented people than when they are done by citizens.

Why should we resist and take action against criminalization?

Criminalization is a threat to our values as people of conscience. We resist the criminalization and stigmatization of whole communities because we believe that every individual has worth and dignity as an individual. This means that we all have the right to be judged on the merits of our actions, not on the basis of stereotypes about our identities. Not only is this a minimal requirement of fairness, it is also crucial to the right to due process.

For those of us, like myself, who grew up in privileged settings where federal agents and law enforcement were not a daily feature of life, the concept of “criminalization” is not always intuitive. Meeting community leaders who are on the front lines of the struggle for dignity and sanctuary, has shown me why it is so important to gain a clearer understanding of this term and resist efforts to legalize discrimination. Confronting criminalization and ending it is key to creating communities that will be genuine sanctuaries for all.

A Win for Rights, But the Struggle Goes On

 

These rulings, like those that blocked the first order, come as a great relief to refugees, immigrants, Muslim Americans, and everyone who cares about our country’s values of individual rights and equal treatment.

Two key rulings by federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland last week have temporarily halted the implementation of the President’s second attempt at a “travel ban”—widely referred to as the Muslim Ban 2.0. These rulings, like those that blocked the first order, come as a great relief to refugees, immigrants, Muslim Americans, and everyone who cares about our country’s values of individual rights and equal treatment.

Under these rulings, refugees in the United States will be able to reunite with their family members without fear of being denied a visa purely because of their nationality, people who have applied for third-country refugee processing in Costa Rica will no longer be stranded in limbo, and some refugee children in Central America who have already spent months or longer waiting in deadly conditions will again board flights to safety.

Too close for comfort

As crucial as these rulings were, however, they should never have been the only thing standing between people and the loss of their rights. The first ruling came down only a few hours before the ban was set to go into effect. Refugees, visa applicants, and nationals of six Muslim-majority countries were left staring down a precipice of possible family separation and years of processing delays up until the last minute. This was far too close a call.

Neither ruling offers permanent relief from these fears. They are both temporary restraining orders and could be lifted on appeal. The administration has already made clear its intent to fight the rulings, and Trump has suggested that he may return to the, even more discriminatory, version of the first order.

Moreover, the ban, even if permanently blocked, has already had a chilling effect on the lives and prospects of refugees. Since January, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has stopped conducting new interviews with child refugees applying for the Central American Minors program (CAM), even though the executive orders were supposedly on hold. Asylum-seekers from Africa and the Middle East have been fleeing the United States for Canada in significant numbers, enduring a frigid and dangerous journey on their way, because of the U.S. government’s undisguised hostility to their rights. And none of these court rulings will affect the administration’s other executive orders and implementation guidelines that continue to target immigrants and asylum-seekers.

What did the courts decide?

In many ways, the refugee ban has been foiled so far because of the President’s own rhetoric. The courts did not have to look hard for evidence of discriminatory intent for the actions of this administration. In fact, they relied on the President’s campaign statements that he would seek “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and that “Islam hates us.” Both cited Trump’s comments in interviews that he only stopped referring to a Muslim ban in public because “[p]eople were so upset when I used the word Muslim” that he decided to “talk […] territory instead of Muslim.” Further, administration officials have been quoted stating that the second executive order was meant to accomplish the same purpose as the first, even as the first was under a nationwide injunction because of its discriminatory purpose.

The second version of the order claims it does not discriminate. Instead, it offers a “national security” rationale for the ban (one that did not appear anywhere in the text of the first version), and which administration officials were not able to supply when asked for it at trial. These are strong indicators that the national security argument was a mere pretext. In fact, Maryland District Court Judge Theodore Chuang found that national security was “not the primary purpose for the travel ban.”

The administration claimed that people who come from six conflict-ravaged nations—Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen—pose a greater terror risk than others. (They make no mention of the role the United States itself has recently played in conflicts in more than one of these countries.) The administration’s argument is not only belied by a recent DHS report which found that country of origin has little determination on whether someone is likely to commit violence. It is also a betrayal of our national promise, violating one of our most important social values: that people should not be judged based on where they come from, but rather as individuals with worth and dignity.

One order down – an entire political agenda to go

The executive orders are so extreme that they may not survive the legal challenges ahead. However, the courts on their own will not be able to forestall every piece of a larger xenophobic agenda. There are signs, for instance, that the administration could still suspend the refugee program even if the rest of the executive order is not allowed to stand. The Maryland court, for one, while blocking portions of the executive order, did not extend its ruling to cover the refugee program. This choice is difficult to understand, given that the assault on the program was motivated by the same anti-Muslim bias (nearly half of refugees currently entering the United States are Muslim, and the vast majority coming from the same Muslim-majority countries targeted in the order).

UUSC will remain vigilant in the months ahead and pick up the work of resistance wherever other remedies are insufficient. Our organization was born out of the struggles of refugees and victims of persecution during World War II and we will continue to speak out against the politics of hate and all efforts to unwind the moral consensus that has emerged since those years. UUSC is in solidarity with all marginalized communities as we struggle for greater recognition of human rights.