By David Sheridan, photo above courtesy Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association
Last week the Milwaukee School Board unanimously passed a resolution declaring the district a safe haven for students and families threatened by deportation and vowing to oppose the actions of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents “by all legal means available.” Milwaukee joins school districts around the country who have taken similar actions.
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Organized by Youth Empowered in the Struggle (YES), an arm of the community-based Voces de la Frontera, the Milwaukee students drove a tireless organizing plan that included powerful personal story-telling. They spoke at school faculty meetings to enlist educator support. They met individually with each school board member. They wrote a petition calling for the protection immigrant students and families in public schools. Then they fanned out into the community to gather signatures, ultimately gaining more the 1,600. And using the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA) office, the students created signs and a huge banner for their rallies and marches. They phoned supporters to ensure a big turnout for the meeting when the Board would consider the resolution.
It all worked—the School Board meeting room was packed. And student after student went to the microphone to tell the stories of their families fleeing homes, memories, and everything they knew, for a better life in the U.S. They told about the violence their families had escaped and the terrors they endured getting here.
“It was very hard for these students to tell their stories in public—many of them had never done so before,” says Cristal Tinajero, a high school student and YES activist. History teacher Berta Barillas agrees. “I urged students to look at Frederick Douglass and see how his telling of being a slave and then escaping from slavery made him all the more powerful.” And indeed, many of the YES students reported feeling empowered after they’d testified.
The resolution by the School Board:
- Bars school staff, contractors, volunteers and representative from using district resources to aid in the arrest of person “whose only violation of the law” is that they are—or are suspected of—being undocumented.
- Prohibits sharing a student’s or guardian’s immigration status, or other protected information, without a valid court order.
- Established a protocol for steps to be taken if I.C.E. or its designee attempts to enter a school.
“Our fight for a sanctuary district is about children not being afraid to come to school as I.C.E. deportation squads roam our community, spreading fear,” says YES organizer Cendi Trujillo. The 23-year-old Trujillo is no stranger to fear—she was brought to the U.S. when she was 2 years-old and is undocumented.
The success in Milwaukee is based on educator and community collaboration. Earlier this year, MTEA members, including teacher Marcelia Nicholson, who learned about Safe Zones policies at NEA’s Minority Leadership program last fall, played a crucial role in persuading the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors to pass a resolution pledging Milwaukee will remain a place where undocumented immigrants are welcomed.
This action helped lay the groundwork for the School Board’s safe haven action. Long-standing community partnerships in Milwaukee, many seeded with support of NEA’s Minority Community Outreach Program, have resulted in not only a powerful message about supporting immigrant students and families, but a real policy win for all the citizens of Milwaukee.