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One week before Trump’s inauguration, national education leaders weigh how to store immigration data

Donald Trump speakingWe’re one week away from President-elect Trump’s inauguration, and many questions remain about how the firebrand new president will lead, particularly when it comes to the immigrant community.

Fittingly, Education Week offers up a fascinating report today on how national education leaders are weighing changes in how they handle immigration data, given concerns that the new president would use the information to speed deportations.

From Education Week:

In recent weeks, the boards of California’s Los Angeles Unified and Santa Cruz city schools passed resolutions vowing to resist any requests for student information from federal immigration officials. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson supported their stance, calling on districts throughout the state to become “safe havens” for immigrant students. The Denver, Minneapolis, and District of Columbia school systems also affirmed their commitments to not share student data that might imperil undocumented students and families, unless compelled by law.

“There are certainly records that could be part of our files that could be of potential interest in [deportation] proceedings,” said Los Angeles school board chair Steven Zimmer in an interview. “We are going to protect that information.”

Schools generally do not track whether students or their families are in the country illegally. They do, however, typically collect and store a wide range of related data, including students’ country of origin, home language, and date of entry into U.S. schools. Schools also typically maintain “directory information” that includes students’ home addresses and phone numbers. In some states, they may also collect and store some students’ Social Security numbers, although schools are by law not allowed to deny enrollment to a student without such information.

In addition, dozens of state education departments maintain databases containing information used to determine if children qualify as immigrants under federal guidelines. The U.S. Department of Education operates the Migrant Student Information Exchange, which allows states to share educational and health information on migrant children—many of whom are immigrants, and some of whom may be undocumented—who travel across state lines.

In the era of “big data,” such information could easily be combined with other data sets and used to make inferences about students’ immigration status, said Bill Fitzgerald, the director of the Education Privacy Initiative at Common Sense Media. The information held by schools and states could also be used to help locate or investigate individuals who may be subject to deportation, or to provide tips to immigration enforcement authorities.

However, none of those potential uses aligns with the original reasons for the collecting the data. And the information is legally protected by federal and state privacy laws, as well as a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that enshrines the right of undocumented children to a free public education.

But since his November election victory, Trump has nominated immigration hardliners to key Cabinet and advisory positions. And though elected officials in many liberal cities have vowed not to cooperate with federal immigration-enforcement authorities, millions of Trump supporters embraced his call for a crackdown on illegal immigration, according to pre-election surveys by the Pew Research Center.

Of course, as the newspaper notes, Trump’s stance on deportation has shifted some post-campaign. On the campaign trail, the Republican businessman talked of removing all of the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, although his rhetoric since Election Day has focused on those with criminal records.

The report notes, however, that one of immigrant advocates’ worst fears—that the federal government will unveil a wholesale sweep of undocumented immigrants with the aid of school data—seems unlikely.

Indeed, even hardline immigration opponents describe the idea of a federal fishing expedition using student records as far-fetched, and potentially counterproductive to their cause.

“We should not be enforcing immigration laws at the schoolhouse door,” said Ira Mehlman, the media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR. The organization has been labeled a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which cites FAIR’s ties to white nationalists and white supremacists.

Mehlman dismissed the charge as “nonsense,” saying FAIR does not support immigration restrictions based on such characteristics as race or religion.

Other scenarios are not so easily dismissed, said a variety of experts consulted by Education Week, including Muzaffar Chishti, the director of the New York City office of the Migration Policy Institute.

If, for example, a more aggressive U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency were seeking to locate a student’s family member whom ICE had already determined to be in the country illegally and guilty of a crime, information held by schools could prove valuable. And if federal authorities decided to go after undocumented immigrants with ties to criminal gangs, youths themselves could also become the subjects of targeted requests for information.

For a district hoping to resist sharing such data, FERPA could prove an inadequate legal shield, said Negrón, of the National School Boards Association. A provision in the law allows schools to share personally identifiable student information without parental consent to comply with a judicial order or lawfully issued subpoena.

It also remains uncertain whether existing laws would prevent a district­—or even a lone employee—from proactively sharing some information that might help immigration authorities pursue enforcement actions.

Under FERPA, for example, schools may share a student’s directory information, which can include name, place of birth, address, and phone number, so long as they previously notified the student’s parent or guardian about the possibility of doing so.

And districts, schools, or individual employees could also choose to proactively share with authorities non-personally identifiable information—such as information about rapid growth in students who are foreign-born or who don’t speak English.

That information could be used to support immigration enforcement actions in the surrounding community, such as raids of local employers.

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