From family separation to arguments over border walls, matters of immigration are never far from the national spotlight these days. Many of these debates seem centered on far-away places and people. But they have serious impacts for Sonoma County families, children and schools.
The population of Sonoma County public schools has shifted over the last decade, with Latino students now comprising 46% of our public school population. For nearly 38% of Sonoma County students, English is not their first language. Research tells us that all students need to have their most basic needs met before they can meet their full potential in the classroom. This includes food and shelter, safety and security and a sense of belonging. These needs are jeopardized by policies that threaten to separate families through immigration enforcement; make it harder to access food and medical benefits; or spread a sense of alienation within the immigrant community.
Here are just a few examples of the ways that recent policies are impacting Sonoma County children:
1. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids have led to fear of deportation. Family resource centers in Sonoma and Petaluma report that immigrant families live with fear, high stress and isolation. In some cases, immigrant parents have been afraid to leave their homes following high-profile raids. This fear spreads to children, who may spend the day worrying about whether their parents will be there to pick them up from school.
2. A proposed change to a federal immigration rule has created a chilling effect on families accessing basic nutrition, health and medical services. Currently, immigrants may not be eligible to become a permanent resident if they are determined to be a “public charge,” or primarily dependent on the government for assistance. Proposed changes would expand the programs that qualify someone as a public charge to include the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (food stamps), Medicaid, Medicare Part D and some housing programs.
Fears about these changes appear to be causing families to “retreat and disenroll” from services such as Medi-Cal, according to the Redwood Community Health Coalition (RCHC). In 2018, Sonoma County saw over 7,000 patients disenroll. RCHC is working with the county to determine the causes, but it is clear that many disenrollments coincide with proposed public charge changes. Without insurance, families may try to go without basic medical care, which could lead to long-term health consequences for children.
There have also been declines in participation in programs like Women, Infants and Children (WIC) due to misinformation and fear, even though it would not be included in the immigration rule changes.
In our divided political climate, these policies are often perceived as pro-Republican or anti-Democrat. I view them as anti-children because of the impact on families and the barriers they create to meeting children’s most basic needs. Regardless of political affiliation, we should all care about the wellbeing of our community’s children because their future is our future.
Schools are doing what they can to mitigate this and put children first. Family resource centers hosted at school sites offer families a range of support, from legal consultations, to trauma counseling, to immigration workshops and clinics. Most school districts have passed safe haven board resolutions and policies. Information on the rights of immigrant students and resources available to immigrant families can be found at scoe.org/pub/htdocs/immigrant-rights.html.
Schools have a vital interest in the emotional and physical well-being of the children in their care. These children will become our doctors, teachers, builders and leaders. Our success as a community depends upon how well we serve them.
Steven D. Herrington, Ph.D., is Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools.