At Public Schools, Immigration Raids Require New DrillNebraska School District Makes Plans on the Fly; 'It Was Like a Tornado'


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 School District.

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 schools.

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 says.

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 and businesses.

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.

Ghost Town

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 adult supervision.

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 usual.

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."