Phoenix PD May Ban School Resource Officers From Asking About Immigration Status

It's been well-established — by no less of an authority than the U.S. Supreme Court — that undocumented immigrants have the right to attend public schools.

Whether they can be questioned about their legal status or even handed over to immigration officials while they're there is another question. Recently, local activists have raised concerns about the role of school resource officers — sworn law-enforcement officials who are assigned to public schools — and asked for assurances that they won't be used as a deportation force under the Trump administration.

Their efforts seem to be having an impact.

On Friday, Phoenix police chief Jeri Williams said that she would look into changing the department’s policy to make it clear that school resource officers aren't there to act as the immigration police.

“Working with the school district and with our attorneys, it’s absolutely logical that we could come up with some different language for the policy that can help minimize some of that fear,” she told members of the City Council’s ad hoc subcommittee on Trump’s executive orders.

She wasn’t willing to make any promises about exactly what the revised policy would look like, though.

“Because juveniles don’t understand their legal rights, can we get specific language saying that SROs cannot question juveniles about their immigration status without an attorney present?” Councilwoman Kate Gallego asked.

“That I’ll need to look at,” Williams replied. “It’s a delicate balance, making sure we’re in compliance with the law. We’re taking copious notes and will be meeting with our attorneys to make sure that we’re still within the confines of SB 1070.”

In theory, that shouldn’t be hard to do. Tucson, Flagstaff, and Mesa already have guidelines written into their police departments’ general orders that state (emphasis ours):

School Resource Officers (SROs) shall remain mindful of their unique position as liaisons between the Department and one of the most vulnerable and impressionable segments of the community, school children. SROs shall seek to foster a sense of trust, cooperation and safety among the students with whom they interact. SROs shall not compromise the ability of students to interact and cooperate with an SRO without fear of repercussion based upon their immigration status. Accordingly, when interacting with minors, School Resource Officers shall refrain from asking about immigration status.

Even if Phoenix adopts an identical policy, that doesn't mean that students couldn't still wind up getting deported. As Williams repeatedly pointed out on Friday, local police departments are required to contact Immigrations and Customs Enforcement whenever they make an arrest — regardless of whether it occurs on school grounds.

“It doesn’t matter if you are an adult or or a child,” she said. “That is state law.”

But banning SROs from asking about immigration status would prevent them from bringing up the topic in casual conversation with students, or during interactions that don't result in an arrest — which could make undocumented students feel like they're putting themselves and their families at risk just by going to school.

At Friday's meeting, Williams insisted that wasn't happening in Phoenix schools.

"We’re not on campus asking about immigration status," she promised the committee members. "It’s not clear in our policy. But that’s not what we’re doing there."

If that's already the case, then surely the police department should have no problem updating the policy to make it explicitly clear. Right?
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Antonia Noori Farzan is a staff writer at New Times and an honors graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Before moving to Arizona, she worked for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.