Michigan School Superintendent Tells Staff, Families to Cooperate with ICE

People cheer before they march Feb. 16, 2017, in Detroit for "A Day Without Immigrants." (Todd McInturf /Detroit News via AP)

When the ICE man comes knocking, open the door, “the arrest has to be made,” Holland (Mich.) Public Schools Superintendent Brian Davis told his school district’s staff in a March 5 email following a meeting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement representatives.

“I was also assured that these two branches enforce the law with the highest degree of humanity and sensitivity,” Davis also wrote in his email, which was obtained through a Detroit News open records request.

“There are not ‘raids’ per say [sic] as some reports might indicate and doors are not automatically beaten down,” Davis assured district employees.

His best advice, given what ICE agents had told Davis in a meeting two days before the email went out, has created intense pushback from the ACLU, the Michigan Civil Rights Department and a local immigrant rights group.

It’s been a tense spring in Holland, a western Michigan community of close to 34,000, nearly 23 percent Latino or Hispanic, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

The meeting with ICE agents and several local law enforcement leaders was held to combat rumors and “dangerous misinformation” of federal “raids and roundups,” according to Khaalid Walls, an ICE spokesman.

The arrest of a Holland resident, Maria Melendez-Espinosa, on six counts of identity theft sparked a firestorm of reports that ICE agents were running rampant through Holland, finding and arresting illegal immigrants. But Walls said Melendez-Espinosa was not picked up in an ICE raid, and no one else was arrested that day in what he described as a “federal criminal enforcement action.”

Even given the fact that the Melendez-Espinosa arrest was not part of the raids that netted nearly 700 people across the U.S. in February, the ACLU said Davis got it exactly wrong. But a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union added Davis wasn’t to blame.

“Don’t open the door, but be calm,” reads the ACLU’s advice in a Facebook post. “ You have rights. An ICE administrative warrant does not allow them to enter your home without your consent.”

“ICE falsely informed Holland school officials that immigrant families should allow deportation agents into their own homes — when in fact immigration agents do not have the right to enter without a criminal warrant, which they rarely have,” ACLU staff attorney Miriam Aukerman told the Detroit News. “We urge school officials and other local leaders to get the facts.”

However, from ICE’s side of the table, Walls said the ACLU’s guidance is not the best advice for anyone who answers a knock at their front door, opens it, and finds themselves face-to-face with a federal immigration agent.

“In the context of any law enforcement action, we would certainly encourage individuals to obey a lawful request from an officer or a special agent in possession of an administrative or criminal arrest warrant,” Walls said.

Sarah Yore-Van Oosterhout, director of Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates in Holland, was at the meeting that Davis attended with ICE and she isn’t buying their nice-guy routine.

Oosterhout believes ICE is conducting “a deliberate campaign” to get Holland residents to open their homes, and school officials to open their classrooms, to ICE agents.

Agustin Arbulu, the director of the Michigan Civil Rights Department, issued a statewide letter after Davis advised the Holland district to open its doors to ICE, warning schools to “plan now for the possibility that law enforcement might one day seek your school’s assistance” to round up illegal immigrants.

“They (ICE) have a special interest, I think, around schools,” Arbulu said.

Brian Davis issued a statement in April in which he “apologized if any of the information I provided in recent days has been misinterpreted, or has been a misstatement on my part. I do not want to contribute to this confusion.”

Even though Davis told his staff not to resist federal agents, he earlier promised that ICE agents wouldn’t be allowed to run roughshod through the Holland schools.

In that April statement, Davis referred to a Feb. 14 email in which he vowed no child would lose their place in a Holland Public Schools classroom no matter how they came to America.

“We are consulting with legal counsel to ensure protection of our students’ constitutional rights and that students have equal access to education regardless of their immigration or their parents’ immigration status,” Davis wrote the day that Melendez-Espinosa was arrested, and rumors were swirling around Holland about an ICE roundup.

“The immigration status of a child or their parents,” Davis added, “does not impact enrollment in Holland Public Schools.”