California’s top education official joins court fight to stop threat of fiscal penalties to sanctuaries

March 23, 2017

Fifty-seven school districts in California have passed resolutions to protect immigrants.

California’s public schools chief joined the legal fight Wednesday over President Donald Trump’s order threatening to cut funding for local jurisdictions that have vowed to protect undocumented immigrants.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson filed a brief in the U.S. Ninth District Court in support of Santa Clara County’s request in February for a preliminary injunction to halt Trump’s order that threatens to stop federal funding to sanctuary jurisdictions. The order could affect funding for hundreds of cities, counties and schools across the country that have declared themselves sanctuaries or safe havens.

Torlakson’s brief claims that the Trump order is unconstitutional because it doesn’t define “sanctuary” and forces local agencies, including schools, to enforce federal immigration laws.

“The Executive Order places schools, school districts and county offices of education, who have merely identified themselves as safe havens for undocumented students, in the precarious position of losing large amounts of federal funds without warning, notice or clear guidance about what is meant by the order,” Torlakson said Thursday.

Trump’s order, issued Jan. 25, says, “jurisdictions that willfully refuse to comply with (federal immigration laws) are not eligible to receive Federal grants, except as deemed necessary for law enforcement purposes.”

The order does not detail which jurisdictions would be affected by the order since it does not clearly define “sanctuary jurisdictions.” School districts are not specifically mentioned in the order.

According to EdSource research, of California’s largest 25 districts, about half have passed resolutions offering protections for immigrants.

San Francisco, Richmond and two cities in Massachusetts have also sued to block the order, and 35 cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis and Oakland, have filed briefs supporting Santa Clara’s suit. In all, more than 400 cities around the nation have declared themselves sanctuaries. And 57 school districts in California have declared themselves safe havens, according to the California Department of Education, though it is not clear if they all have used that term.

Torlakson’s brief was greeted with enthusiasm by immigration rights groups.

“It’s great to see Santa Clara get the support it needs to show the injury caused by this order,” said Jessica Hanson, an attorney for the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles. “To have the viewpoint of schools in these briefs is very valuable.”

The order has caused widespread fear among immigrants, she said, leading some families to keep their children from attending school.

The federal government has not yet withheld funds from so-called sanctuary jurisdictions, but as local governments plan their budgets, they’re seeking clarity on funding sources, she said. That’s what has prompted the lawsuits, she said.

U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick is scheduled to hear the Santa Clara motion on April 5.

Torlakson has urged California school districts to pass sanctuary or safe-haven resolutions several times since Trump was elected in November. He noted that state and federal law allow all children to attend public school, regardless of their immigration status.

The federal government sends California schools about $8 billion a year, or 9 percent of their overall budget, which pays for free and reduced-cost meals for students from low-income families, among other services.

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