By Brianna Calix

Amid a push for Merced County cities to become “sanctuaries” for undocumented immigrants, the Livingston Union School District’s governing board last week voted for its schools to be “safe havens” for students.

The school board – which oversees a district in which nearly 85 percent of its 2,500 students are Hispanic – passed the resolution unanimously, declaring students have the right to attend school regardless of immigration status and barring Immigration and Customs Enforcement from entering school sites without the district’s permission or a federal order.

Livingston is the first known district to take such action in Merced County.

“We want kids to continue to come to school, and they need to continue to learn. The safer they feel, the more likely it’s something that won’t become an issue in the future,” said Andres Zamora, superintendent of Livingston Union. “Concerns have been expressed at different parent stakeholder meetings throughout the district – concerns about the safety of kids, kids concerned about their parents being deported and inappropriate comments being made.”

The district proposed the resolution after state schools chief Tom Torlakson last month penned a letter encouraging district officials to declare schools safe havens for students and parents to “make sure the prospect of the deportation of undocumented students and their families will not interfere with helping our students succeed.”

Edit Salazar, who is the Parent Teacher Association president and ASSETS after-school leader at Campus Park Elementary, said she was happy and thankful to the board for the action.

“It says a lot about our district and how we all work as a family,” she said. “It shows we’re not only a district that educates our children, we also worry and care about our parents and look out for the families of students.”

The resolution references the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe that prohibited public elementary and secondary schools from denying students access based on their immigration status.

The resolution restricts sharing of student files to find out a student’s legal status, and if ICE requests information, the superintendent will consult with the district’s attorney to determine if the information can be released.

The board also hoped to send a message that parents and families are welcome and encouraged to be involved in their child’s education, said trustee Susan Ruth.

“We need parental involvement in the Local Control Accountability Plan,” Ruth said, referring to how the district sets its funding priorities. “We don’t want them to be afraid to participate.”

The district also serves a large population of Punjabi students.

Ruth pointed to the district’s dual-language academy, which teaches lessons in both English and Spanish, as an example of the district’s background in promoting tolerance and appreciating diversity. She noted the district’s second-largest student ethnic population speaks Punjabi.

“It’s something we did for lots of reasons, one of them being to help the community appreciate the diversity and value people’s cultures and languages when they may not be your own,” she said.

Last month, advocates from the Merced Organizing Project and Faith in the Valley floated the idea of approaching city and county governments about declaring sanctuary status. The proposal was met with mixed reaction from local elected officials.

Sheriff Vern Warnke said he doesn’t believe Merced County should be a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. He supports immigrants, but he said he believes they should follow the process to become citizens. Warnke also said sheriff’s deputies don’t actively seek out undocumented people.

Gurpal Samra, a longtime Livingston City Council member, said last month that he’s conflicted on the policy. He doesn’t like the idea of breaking up families, but he also said the immigration policy needs to be fixed if it’s not working.

On Friday, the day of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, the same group of advocates from the Merced Organizing Project plan to hold a rally and march in Merced. Organizers encourage residents to skip work and school and join protesters across the country in standing against “racism and injustice.”

Protesters are scheduled to rally at the corner of Parsons and Merced avenues near Joe Herb Park at noon.

Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477