By Jon Sundby
When President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Jan. 27 detailing a more aggressive stance on illegal immigration than his predecessor, both his supporters and critics realized that the President intended to follow through on his campaign promises. This realization motivated the board of directors for the Des Moines Public School District to pass two “sanctuary” resolutions on Feb. 7, which both reaffirm the district’s support for students of all backgrounds and set up a protocol in case one of their schools ever encounters Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The school district is the first in Iowa to pass such resolutions.
“Given the demographic profile of Des Moines Public Schools, we thought that it was critically important that we create the right sort of protocol and policy that would ensure that our students and their families would not only feel welcome, but protected, in our district,” said Teree Caldwell-Johnson, Chair of the Board of Directors for Des Moines Public Schools.
The first resolution establishes a chain of command wherein if ICE contacts a school official, they should refer the agency to the Superintendent, who would be advised by legal counsel when speaking with the agency. Unlike many designations of “sanctuary” jurisdictions, this resolution does not advocate for non-compliance, but merely the streamlining of requests to one official who would have access to legal knowledge regarding what they can do to help their students.
“We were very specific in our [resolution] that the Superintendent would serve as the clearinghouse for any requests, so that building level administrators and others aren’t put upon to respond or act. It is really more of a district level decision to allow the superintendent, supported by a general consul, to field all requests and manage those appropriately so that we’re consistent across the district,” Caldwell-Johnson said.
But despite the practicality of the resolution, the board has already received pushback from one notable Iowa lawmaker — Congressman Steve King. Right after the board passed the resolutions, Caldwell-Johnson received a letter from the Congressman who claimed the school district’s actions were in violation of two federal laws and the Constitution.
“This resolution looks to violate constitutional law, civil law and criminal law,” stated King in his letter to the school board. “It behooves all parties contemplating this course of action to think deeply about the serious legal ramifications…If there is a disagreement on immigration law, then all are free to attempt to change it through the political process. However, no one is free to act in violation of the law simply because they do not agree with it.”
Caldwell-Johnson was puzzled by the letter, both because of its inaccuracies regarding the substance and legality of their policy, as well as the fact that Steve King does not represent Des Moines and has never shown interest in any previous issues regarding the district.
In response, Caldwell-Johnson and the Superintendent, Thomas Ahart, drafted a letter to King in which they pointed to their lawyer’s legal analysis, several other districts actions and pieces of ICEs own internal policy, which supported their stance. Caldwell-Johnson also mentioned that King’s letter completely ignored the Supreme Court ruling of Plyer v. Doe, which guaranteed the right of every child, documented or otherwise, to a public education.
“It came as somewhat a surprise that you chose to write a letter that appeared to be an attempt to intimidate our school district from supporting our immigrant and refugee students or interfering with the long-established legal right that all children — regardless of immigration status — have to receive a free public education in the United States of America,” wrote Caldwell-Johnson and Ahart in their response to King.
One of the driving forces behind the resolutions was school board member Robert Barron ‘02, a Grinnell alum and one of 16 elected Latino officials in Iowa. In an interview with the Des Moines Register, Barron emphasized that these actions were intended to help the whole system, not just undocumented students, as “good ethical governance…puts the needs of the whole first by acting to improve outcomes for those with a pronounced disadvantage.”
Des Moines Public Schools are most likely the first district to create a protocol to deal with ICE since they are the largest by student population and currently serve 4,000 students who were born outside of the United States. Caldwell-Johnson thought smaller districts, like Grinnell-Newburg, would not have to create such a protocol since their undocumented student population is smaller. Indeed, when asked about whether Grinnell’s school board was thinking of taking similar steps, Board Chair Barbara Brown said that the topic had never arisen.