President Donald Trump’s flurry of executive orders and policy overhauls targeting minority groups has left many Americans, particularly those who identify as undocumented immigrants, Muslims, or members of the LGBTQ community, reeling in the aftermath.
Throughout these early months of the Trump presidency, the city of Eugene, an area with a liberal-majority demographic, has been swept with several resistance movements. On Jan. 28, Eugene residents organized a rally at the Wayne Morse Federal Courthouse to protest the authorization of an executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. The demonstration drew a crowd of more than 1,000 in a show of peaceful activism.
Much like the community at large, several students and teachers within the Eugene School District have expressed sentiments of disapproval toward the fledgling Trump administration. As a result of this pushback, both the city of Eugene and the 4J District have weighed the option of becoming “sanctuary” institutions in order to create legal protections for their minority and LGBT constituents.
During the final weeks of President Obama’s tenure in January, the School Board held a public testimony in which community members were invited to discuss their concerns around the incoming administration’s policies, especially those scaling back on recent civil rights victories for minority groups.
Over the next half-hour, parents and students of various citizenship status, as well as school guidance counselors, testified before the board. The board is comprised of community volunteers elected to the posts.
One such counselor was Tibor Bessko, a supporter of the sanctuary initiative from Churchill High School.
“These undocumented students are like deer in the headlights, wondering what is going to happen to them,” Bessko said. “They are students of color who are feeling like their lives will be in further danger. I am privy to student status and information… and I will not give any information. I want to hear from my school board and district that you will back me up when I take that sort of position.”
The city and the district are governed independently of one another. Each has a different mission and serves different constituencies.
Board members appeared highly receptive to the message, promising that they would push to pass a resolution that would create explicit legal protections for 4J students. During the meeting, board member Anne Marie Levis gave a tearful statement on concerns around the nation’s polarized political sphere and pledged her commitment to the sanctuary policy.
Such measures have already been implemented in several communities, including the Portland Public Schools Board and the Reynolds School District in Portland. Ten days after the election of President Trump, committees in both districts approved policies that prohibit immigration officials from entering school grounds without permission from top administrators.
As a part of the policymaking process, the Eugene School Board reviewed the resolutions adopted by the Portland, Corvallis, and David Douglas school districts. The group then developed a draft that was provided to the public prior to the January meeting.
However, on Wednesday, Feb. 15, the 4J Board voted against declaring “sanctuary” status and instead passed a resolution “affirming commitment to a safe, inclusive, and supportive school environment for all students, regardless of national origin, immigration status, or documentation status.”
The move, which only reaffirmed current policies that exist under 4J jurisdiction, left many community members dissatisfied with the extent of the board’s action. Those who testified in the February meeting, including Roosevelt Middle School teacher Kay Fullerton, were most critical of the resolution’s vague language.
“I want to thank the board for recognizing that many of our district policies are designed and will help protect all students, but I think it’s important to accomplish the goal of making the undocumented students feel safe. That language was starkly absent from the resolution, and it gave me a red warning light,” Fullerton said.
But according to School Board Chairwoman Mary Walston, the district has limited legal powers that prevent it from taking more drastic measures.
“We do not have the authority to refuse federal or state law enforcement officials,” Walston said. “Instead, we chose to make an affirmative statement of the policies and values already in place… We do not make laws.”
Also present at the meeting was 4J District Superintendent Gustavo Balderas, who backed the board’s decision and sought to reassure worried students and parents. In an email interview with The Axe, Balderas pointed out that the district will continue to adhere to broader laws that uphold immigrant rights.
“I can say that we have state and federal laws that protect students — laws that we will continue to follow,” Balderas said. “What this resolution has done is focus the district to review and update school district policies and procedures.”
In stark contrast to the Eugene School District, the City of Eugene has made significant strides in its push to formalize its status as a “sanctuary” for undocumented citizens. Last month, the Eugene Human Rights Commission, an organization that functions as a policy-making group within the city, passed an ordinance known as “Protections for Individuals.”
According to Jan Bohman, Eugene’s Community Relations Manager, new provisions will be added to the City Code under the ordinance that blocks the use of city resources on the grounds of enforcing federal immigration law — unless it is related to a criminal offense.
“This ensures that if [Oregon] law changes, the provisions will still remain in City Code,” Bohman said.
Despite representing a key constituency within the City of Eugene, the 4J District is not subject to the guidelines established by the City Council.
“The city and the district are governed and operate independently of one another,” said Ken Neubeck, Chair for the Human Rights Commission. “Each has a different mission and serves different constituencies. Neither is reliant on the other nor attempts to exert influence over the other’s policies. That was the case with regard to deliberations and decisions on sanctuary by the two bodies.”
Thus, in order to provide specific legal protections for undocumented 4J students, the district itself would be required to enact its own policies independently.
During the February board meeting, Spencer Butte sixth grader Kai Rabasa Freeman stressed the urgency of such legal action.
“I’m here to ask you to make our district a formal sanctuary,” he said. “I’m here to ask you to protect my friends for at least six hours of their day.”