By Peter Marcus, DENVER DAILY NEWS
Denver Public Schools officials yesterday defended a decision to ban employee travel to Arizona as being about both a protest of a tough new immigration law in the state and protecting staff from “harassment” and “discrimination.”
Superintendent Tom Boasberg yesterday announced that the district has banned all work-related travel to Arizona. He is also forming a committee to “consider other measures the district might take.”
“Ya hit ‘em in the pocketbooks,” former State Sen. Paul Sandoval said at an afternoon news conference at DPS’ headquarters.
School officials were unable yesterday to provide reporters with any financial figures or numbers of work-related trips the district makes to Arizona.
But in a school district that is 60-percent Latino, the general sentiment is that the district needs to send a message to Arizona that the school community is “outraged” at the new immigration law, said officials. The other concern is protecting employees from unintended consequences of the law, which requires local police in Arizona to investigate the identities and residential status of suspected undocumented immigrants when a “reasonable suspicion” exists.
Critics say the law will lead to racial profiling, harassment and discrimination — something DPS officials said they don’t want to put their employees through.
“This is really not a political issue at all, this is a prudent decision about the welfare and safety of our employees, and you can extrapolate that to our students as well,” said Andrea Mérida, a DPS Board of Education member representing District 2. “We have a responsibility to our employees to make sure that we provide safe atmospheres for them in the school, in the administration building, as well as wherever they’re going to be taking professional development. This is about health and safety for our employees.”
Boasberg, however, made it clear that there was more to the decision than just the “health and safety” of the district’s employees.
“Our community is deeply outraged by the Arizona law,” the superintendent said in a verbal statement at the beginning of the news conference yesterday. “I have heard clearly and passionately from our students, our parents, our teachers, our principals and our community members about their deep concern.”
“Our community deeply values the rich diversity of the Denver Public Schools and the dignity of each and every member of our community,” continued Boasberg. “We fear that this new law will encourage racial profiling and subject individuals to arbitrary stops and harassment based on their ethnic or racial status. This violates our basic values of human dignity, of non-discrimination, and of equal protection under the law for all.”
Supporters of the Arizona law were quick to criticize Denver Public Schools officials yesterday, not so much for opposing the law, but for sending a political message. Critics said DPS officials should be focusing on turning around schools and serving students, not on sending political messages.
“Instead of imposing politically-motivated travel bans, perhaps Mr. Boasberg ought to focus on improving a school system that fails far too many kids each and every day,” Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, said in a statement yesterday.
Penry pointed out that DPS faces a dismal graduation rate of just over 50 percent.
“This is the problem with the immigration debate in America: too many people are trying to score cheap political points instead of focusing on fixing the border mess,” added Penry, who also serves as campaign manager for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jane Norton.
Norton said in a statement yesterday, “The Arizona law was an inevitable consequence of the federal government’s failure to act over the last 30 years to secure all our borders … The Arizona legislature and governor decided to stand up and say ‘no more.’”
Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat, said yesterday he would veto a similar law if it were to make its way to his desk in Colorado. He added that he has no plans of restricting state travel to Arizona.
DPS officials made it clear yesterday that their employees are all verified for legal residential and work-eligibility status. But they say there is still reason to be concerned for the safety of their employees, even if they are legal residents.
“The concern about this law is its potential for arbitrary stops; arbitrary harassment; profiling of individuals based on their racial and ethnic status — and we don’t want to be in a position where our employees on work-travel are potentially subject to that type of arbitrary stop and harassment,” said Boasberg.
Hurting service industry employees?
A spokesman for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s office said they are concerned about the impact a boycott may have on innocent service industry employees, many of which are minorities.
“In Arizona, both supporters and adversaries of SB 1070 have voiced opposition to the notion of potential boycotts as a legitimate course of action,” said Paul Senseman, spokesman for Brewer. “Instead, even opponents of the legislation have suggested legal challenges and ballot referrals as their appropriate next step. A travel boycott of Arizona would thoughtlessly discriminate against innocent service industry employees, including Native Americans and other populations.
Denver school officials acknowledge that human rights issues are at question all across the world — but they defended the decision to pick Arizona for the boycott.
“This is a unique situation of deep and intense concern to the Denver Public Schools because Arizona is a neighboring state, it is a place of travel for our employees, and also because of the outrage in our community, the potential for racial and ethnic profiling and the way that this law directly attacks our core values — our core values of dignity, our core values that we are a diverse and multi-ethnic community, and I think this law is unique in the degree to which it attacks and undermines those basic and deeply held values,” responded Boasberg when questioned by a reporter.
The Community Advisory Committee will be led by prominent Denver civil rights leader Nita Gonzales; Landri Taylor, executive director of the Urban League of Denver; and by Sandoval as well.
Meanwhile, DPS students today are planning walk-outs to protest the Arizona law. School officials encouraged students to stay in class, but the walk-outs are still scheduled to begin at noon today at Lincoln High School. Students will march to the Capitol.
On Saturday, hundreds of immigrant rights advocates are expected to gather at noon at Sunken Gardens Park in Denver to call for comprehensive federal immigration reform. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and fellow Democrats yesterday unveiled a “framework” for a sweeping overhaul of U.S. immigration laws.
Metro Organizations for People yesterday applauded Boasberg and other DPS officials for instituting the travel ban.
“We applaud Denver Public Schools, where many of our children attend, for taking leadership in condemning this unjust law,” said Karla Loaiza, MOP board chair and parent leader. “We urge other school districts to join DPS in defending basic civil rights in this country.”