What seemed like typical lunch-time ruckus to visitors at Berkeley High School Thursday was in fact an act of solidarity with immigrants across the nation.
More than 3000 Berkeley High students trooped out of their classrooms at a prompt from their principal Jim Slemp and surrounded the 17-acre Milvia Street campus to protest the recent arrest of a Berkeley family by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.
In less than 10 minutes, members of Fighting for Immigrants Rights and Equality (FIRE)—a group formed by Berkeley High staff and students—helped students form a human chain, dotted with posters and placards decrying what they said were violations to immigration rights.
The May 6 arrest of a Latino family who lived near the Berkeley High campus sparked protest among local immigrant groups and advocates and prompted the Berkeley Unified School District to send out a telephone message advising parents not to panic after rumors started circulating that ICE agents were rounding up students in Berkeley and Oakland schools.
“If you had seen our children’s faces when ICE officers took the family in Berkeley you could see the kids really cared,” said Slemp. “People were fearful. It’s important that we treat people equally and make Berkeley High a safe place for everyone. This is a statement about who we are. Kids could have gone out to lunch if they wanted to but they chose to stay back for this.”
Berkeley High sophomore Giovanni Guzman waved a red and blue “Fire Melts Ice” poster next to a 6-feet-long “Power to the People” banner.
“I am here trying to show where we stand,” said Guzman, who was born in Mexico. “Many of my family members are undocumented and I was afraid for them when ICE was in the city.”
“Immigrants Are People,” chanted the crowd, as cars and buses stopped for a second to honk and absorb all the action.
Beatrice Leyva Cutler of United in Action cheered the students on.
“This really shows the unity we have in Berkeley,” Cutler, the mother of a Berkeley High sophomore said. “It shows the support of the school for immigrants. The voice of students and teachers is extremely powerful for our community.”
Although ICE agents did not enter any school campuses in Berkeley, the Berkeley Board of Education is drafting a policy which limits access to the district’s schools from outside agencies, including Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) officials.
The district currently has no policy outlining whether or not it should cooperate with ICE agents.
“While we are not asking our employees and students to break the law, we will not volunteer or cooperate with immigration officials,” said board member Karen Hemphill. “We have a legal responsibility to educate all Berkeley residents, regardless of their citizenship status or national origin, and we cannot do it unless our schools provide a safe and secure environment. We want to make it clear to immigrant families that they and their children are safe on our campuses. We also want them to know that we will not share student information with the INS.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1982 in Plyler v. Doe that public schools were prohibited from denying immigrant students access to elementary and secondary public education.
“The reaction within the community [regarding the arrests] was fear and anxiety and part of [ICE’s] intent was intimidation,” said school board president John Selawsky. “Our kids have to be comfortable coming to school everyday. We don’t want them to be afraid of outside agencies and worry about being questioned and detained and taken away in vans.”
Hemphill said the district’s new policy will be modeled on the City of Berkeley’s 1971 resolution, which declares Berkeley as a “City of Refuge” and directs the Berkeley Police Department not to participate or collaborate with ICE.
Hemphill said the panic around the May 6 incident had prompted board members to establish a new policy.
“Even though ICE agents did not set foot on any school campus, they can do so with permission from higher authorities,” Hemphill said. “That’s not a warm and fuzzy feeling for me.”
The district is researching several school district policies opposing ICE raids, including the one adopted by the San Francisco Unified School District in 2007, which was drafted after reports of ICE raids caused immigrant families to stop sending their children to school , afraid for them to leave their homes.