At Public Schools, Immigration Raids Require New Drill
Nebraska School District Makes Plans on the Fly;
‘It Was Like a Tornado’
By MIRIAM JORDAN
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
June 18, 2007; Page A1
GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — On Dec. 12, just after 7:30 a.m., Superintendent
Steve Joel got a call from the police chief saying “something big” was
about to happen at the Swift & Co. meatpacking plant.
Mr. Joel realized what that meant: Dozens of Swift workers were about
to be rounded up in an immigration raid. What would happen to their
children, students in his district? Would some seniors ever be able to
graduate? “It was like a tornado,” says the head of the Grand Island
The twister that struck this Midwestern town was part of a far-
reaching operation targeting Swift plants in six states and detaining
1,200 workers. As Congress debates how to deal with millions of
illegal immigrants, the Department of Homeland Security has been
stepping up workplace enforcement. As a result, the number of illegal
immigrants arrested by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement unit,
or ICE, during work-site operations has soared. In the fiscal year
ended Sept. 30, 2002, 485 were arrested. In fiscal year 2006, 3,667
workers were arrested.
The raids at many companies are creating an unexpected new problem for
public schools. More accustomed to gun scares, suspicious intruders
and tornado warnings, school administrators find themselves having to
orchestrate a response to a new kind of crisis.
“Our response was going to be a defining moment for Grand Island,”
says Mr. Joel, a New Yorker who built his 22-year career in Nebraska
Numerous school districts near the raided Swift plants made plans on
the fly. In Marshalltown, Iowa, teachers put children on buses home
and hoped there was someone to receive them. In Worthington, Minn.,
where 239 Swift workers were arrested, schools were flooded with calls
from frantic relatives. Many administrators found themselves calling
Swift in an attempt to ascertain the fate of some students’ parents.
In the aftermath of the highly publicized raids, some schools are
making new contingency plans. Mr. Joel has been on the road to share
his experience with other school administrators. “This is one more
crisis you must be mentally and organizationally prepared for,” he
Chain of Command
Superintendent Robin Stevens of Schuyler, a town 90 miles northeast of
Grand Island that is home to a large Cargill Inc. packing plant, says
his staff has devised a strategy, which includes a chain of command to
ensure effective communication among staff as well as a united message
for students’ families and the community.
Established by German immigrants who toiled on the land or on the
railroads, Grand Island’s population of 42,000 now includes large
numbers of Latin American immigrants who work in the meatpacking
industry. Many of these immigrants are undocumented. Last year, Swift
was the city’s largest employer, with minorities representing 70% of
its 2,600 workers. Currently, 42% of the 8,200 students in Grand
Island schools are minority, mainly Hispanic.
In the years preceding the raid, Mr. Joel and his staff worked hard to
win the support and trust of the Hispanic population, which sometimes
viewed schools with the same suspicion felt for other U.S.
institutions. Mr. Joel hired bilingual staff for the schools and co-
founded a multicultural coalition that includes hospitals, churches
On the morning of Dec. 12, less than 20 minutes after learning of the
raid, Mr. Joel issued an “urgent” email informing administrators at
the district’s 18 schools about a major immigration operation at the
Swift plant that would have “significant impact on many students.”
Children might go home to find one or both parents gone, or might not
be picked up from school at all, it noted.
By then, the raid was well under way. Outside the Swift plant, dozens
of workers, many weeping and shackled, were boarded onto white,
unmarked buses headed for processing centers in other states.
Schools tried to notify their pupils without generating a panic. Every
principal enlisted teachers, social workers and guidance counselors
who could work through the night. Some schools were designated as
shelters. Elementary schools received specific directives to ensure
that every student be released only to relatives or a person that a
child could identify.
Starr Elementary’s administrators attempted to identify the children
of Swift workers but soon realized that most of the worker names,
likely derived from fake Social Security cards, didn’t match the names
given to the school. Walnut Middle School held a meeting where
teachers tried to calm 140 students whose relatives worked at Swift.
Meanwhile, Mr. Joel worried that his “hard-gained trust was about to
go down the tubes.” While immigration agents usually leave schools
alone, there is no rule barring them from picking up parents during
morning drop-off. Mr. Joel says he got assurances from authorities
that his schools wouldn’t be touched.
With details trickling in from the plant and fear gripping Hispanic
neighborhoods, Mr. Joel called a 10 a.m. news conference. “The schools
will be a safe haven and we will guarantee that,” he said. His remarks
helped generate charitable donations from local service groups and
private citizens wanting to help.
Some were distrustful. “How can you tell us that children will be safe
when their parents are no longer here,” shouted an angry Latina
community leader. Undeterred, Mr. Joel reiterated his message on
Spanish-language radio and TV, in fliers sent home with children and
in a simultaneous phone message transmitted to Spanish-speaking homes.
As ICE agents pursued fugitives around town, some families took refuge
in churches while others barricaded their doors and windows at home.
By sundown, the Latino business district was a ghost town. ICE agents
had apprehended 278 immigrants and routed most of them to a processing
center in Iowa.
By about 8 p.m., Mr. Joel’s team had accounted for every student
affected by the raid. About 165 children were identified as having a
relative detained in the Swift raid, including 25 who had two parents
missing. The district confirmed that every one of these children had
The immediate crisis was over. Detained workers would be held anywhere
from a few days to a few months, after which they would be released to
their families while awaiting a court date for a deportation hearing.
But that didn’t mean Mr. Joel’s worries had ended. He feared families
would be too scared to bring their children to school. Not only would
that hurt attendance, it would jeopardize graduation for some high-
school seniors. Indeed, on Dec. 13, attendance was mixed. Only a
handful more students than usual were absent at the high school. But
about 370 students were absent in the lower grades, 60% more than
Mr. Joel, who wears ties adorned with drawings of multicultural
children, instructed school principals to fully investigate each
absence — even if it took going door-to-door.
Principal Kris Burling took to the streets in a heavily Hispanic area
near Howard Elementary. At every house, she could hear music, TVs and
shuffling inside. But when she knocked, no one would come to the door
— even after she explained why she was there. “I took it pretty
personally,” Mrs. Burling recalls. “I had worked with these families
for five years.”
By the third day, attendance levels systemwide were close to normal.
Karla, a fifth-grader whose father had been seized in the raid, was
back in school. “I was afraid that if I left home, they would come and
take my mom,” says the 10-year old, whose family granted permission
for the interview on the condition their last name not be used. “But
mom reminded me that my dad had always wanted me to be educated.” She
adds: “I know I’m safe at school.”
Over the winter holiday break, school officials were dispatched to
homes where at least one parent was still missing, delivering brown
bags stuffed with tortilla chips, beans, rice and other staples.
Inside the bag, a note in Spanish and English cited a hotline to call
“if you have any questions or need help after the Swift raid.”
According to Kerri Nazarenus, who coordinated the response for the
superintendent, “it was a way to get in the door and make sure the
kids were safe.”