New York Times
By Liz Robbins
May 16, 2017
When word came to City Hall on Thursday, it appeared to confirm the administration’s worst fears: federal immigration agents had been to an elementary school in Queens to inquire about a fourth-grade student.
New York City officials sought an explanation on Friday from the Department of Homeland Security, and when they did not immediately hear back, they grew wary. And impatient. The mayor’s press secretary, Eric Phillips, posted on Twitter about the incident with outrage on Saturday. “A 4th grader,” Mr. Phillips repeated for emphasis.
That ignited a firestorm, as immigrant and education advocates, union officials and members of city government concluded that the agents were there about a deportation issue. They made their defiance known on Twitter, with statements and a news release. Many commenters on Twitter asserted that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, known as ICE, did not belong in the city’s schools.
But ICE wasn’t even there.
The immigration agents who visited Public School 58 in Maspeth on May 11 were not enforcement officers, but fraud investigators for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, said Katherine Tichacek, a spokeswoman for the agency. The agents were trying to determine if a student was enrolled in order for a parent to qualify for an immigrant benefit, which could be permanent residency or a work authorization.
Since President Trump announced stricter enforcement of immigration laws, rumors of raids by ICE agents have spread without substantiation in many parts of the country. In New York, there has been talk of ICE agents headed to the Bronx and in Queens, and at a hospital in Brooklyn — all later proved false.
City policy bars federal officials from school property without a warrant. The federal Homeland Security policy declares schools to be a “sensitive location,” so ICE officials have limited access.
The U.S.C.I.S. has no such rules because it does not enforce immigration laws — it administers immigration benefits. In-person school inquiries for fraud investigations are rare, but have occurred recently in New York, Ms. Tichacek said.
The two agents were stopped at the door by a school security officer who called the school administrator, according to the city’s Department of Education. The administrator said the child was not enrolled at the school.
“The officers did not ask to see or speak with a student and only inquired about enrollment status,” Ms. Tichacek said.
She added: “The U.S.C.I.S. officers properly identified themselves and presented credentials and business cards. They spoke to school administrators and left at the conclusion of the conversation.”
In an interview on Tuesday, Mr. Phillips defended his reaction. “The circumstances of the visit, the branch they were from and the lack of information from D.H.S. made us highly suspicious,” Mr. Phillips said. “We would have the same suspicions today.”
Even after learning the details on Sunday, the mayor’s office kept its posture of resistance, leading to Mr. de Blasio’s previously scheduled Monday meeting with John Kelly, the Homeland Security secretary. Mr. Kelly repeated that the agents had not been there for enforcement. The mayor, in a statement, said that their visit was “nevertheless nonconducive to the learning environment.”
On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement that the agency “is always willing to engage with the mayor’s office and the Department of Education to ensure that the needs of D.H.S. components are met.”
As the incident played out on social media, officials and immigration advocates reiterated their opposition to Mr. Trump’s policies, and Carmen Fariña, the schools chancellor, went to P.S. 58 on Monday to declare that federal officials had no place in the schools and that the Department of Education would ensure the safety of students. The department followed with a letter to parents.
On Monday night, the ICE’s Twitter account, @ICEgov, posted “ICE officials did not visit an elementary school in NY, despite reports to the contrary.”
Asked whether he had stirred up fears, Mr. Phillips noted that his post never mentioned ICE specifically.
“I think ICE has fueled the fire,” he said. “Immigration agents, really for any reason, showing up in our elementary schools is alarming. ICE’s enforcement efforts, broadly, are alarming. Parents deserve to know when D.H.S. shows up at our elementary schools.”
A version of this article appears in print on May 17, 2017, on Page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: Agents’ School Visit Sparks a Misdirected Firestorm.
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