In June of 2019, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI, one of the main branches of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) contacted the School District of Palm Beach County multiple times for criminal investigations that had nothing to do with the schools. One of these contacts was an in-person visit on June 26th to one of the district’s elementary schools. Without a subpoena, two special agents attempted to obtain the address and phone numbers of a student’s parents. The school district did not cooperate.
An ICE spokesperson explained to WPTV, a West Palm Beach news station, that HSI had taken one of the child’s parents into custody on a narcotics charge. According to the spokesperson, the two special agents visiting the School District of Palm Beach County intended to obtain the other parent’s information to inform them of the arrest. Because the agents weren’t on school grounds for an enforcement-related action, the spokesperson explained, they technically did not violate ICE policies.
Although the visit had nothing to do with deportation, the agents visited the school only a few days after the execution of a nationwide sweep targeting 2,000 people for immigration proceedings.
Was ICE in the Wrong? Attorney Gaston and Former FBI Agent Explain.
“The sole reason for our being there that day was to notify the other parent,” explained the ICE spokesperson. They claimed the agents were “just trying to do the right thing.”
Our lead attorney, however, was unconvinced. As he explained to WPTV, “the way it was handled makes it clear that that wasn’t the goal.” The in-person visit was unnecessary, and cooperation from the school would have required a violation of the district’s immigration policy. Mr. Gaston believes “a simple phone call would have been sufficient. Law enforcement officers generally know that as far as getting that information from a school or hospital or whatever, there’s privacy laws that are in place and they have to follow the proper channels.”
Former FBI Special Agent Stuart Kaplan agreed. Speaking with an administrator over the phone, he explained, would have been a more appropriate method. While agents often try to locate one parent after arresting the other, Kaplan said their attempt to obtain protected information from a school was unusual.
In accordance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the school district refused to provide the agents with the information they requested. Instead, school officials contacted the parent on HSI’s behalf. According to Central Regional Superintendent Valerie Haines in an email, “the school did everything right and did not provide any information. Instead, they reached out to our office and then legal.” The email also emphasized the district’s protocol, explaining that “personnel may not confirm the enrollment status or provide any information regarding a student without prior authorization from the Superintendent’s office.”
“Kudos to the school district for doing exactly what it should have done,” Mr. Gaston said.
What Is the Sensitive Location Policy?
The in-person visit was not just excessive—it came close to violating the sensitive locations policy that all departments within ICE (including HSI) must follow. HSI is responsible for conducting criminal investigations related to hundreds of U.S. laws, while the other main branch, Enforcement and Removal Operations, manages deportation and removal cases.
In accordance with the sensitive locations policy, the following locations are protected from enforcement actions involving arrests, interviews, searches, and surveillance:
- Places of worship/religious services (e.g. churches, synagogues, mosques, etc.)
- Funerals, weddings, or public religious ceremonies
- Sites during public demonstrations (e.g. marches, rallies, parades, etc.)
The policy is designed to “ensure that ICE officers and agents exercise sound judgment when enforcing federal law at or focused on sensitive locations and make substantial efforts to avoid unnecessarily alarming local communities.” Exceptions that allow enforcement operations at these special locations typically involve serious threats of terrorism or violence.
HSI did not implement enforcement actions at the school, but Attorney Gaston and district officials agreed that this visit represented a disregard for crucial boundaries and privacy laws designed to protect both students and their families.
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