Juntos’ Fight For Sanctuary Schools in Philadelphia

“We want schools free of criminalization, where our youth feel safe, nurtured, and cared for”

Credit Kate Ratner
Credit Kate Ratner

It was a chilly afternoon on March 1st, 20201 as dozens of people congregated around 440 N. Broad Street, the School District of Philadelphia headquarters, for the launch of Juntos’ Sanctuary Schools Campaign.

Juntos is a South Philadelphia-based Latinx immigrant organization dedicated to “fighting for [Latinx] human rights as workers, parents, youth, and immigrants”. Their vision for sanctuary schools is “built upon five core principles:

1. Schools free of criminalization

2. Reinvestment in education

3. Culturally responsive pedagogy

4. Community control of schools

5. Restorative learning environments.”

Even in “sanctuary cities,” or cities where there is not active information sharing between local law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) , public schools do not always honor the comfort and well-being of their Latinx and immigrant student populations. Instating sanctuary schools would mean the School District of Philadelphia would “do everything in its lawful power to protect… students’ confidential information and ensure that… students’ learning environments are not disrupted by immigration or law enforcement actions.”

Juntos’ campaign follows an incident in which ICE officials arrested a 30-year-old Hondurian undocumented immigrant while she was dropping her child off at Eliza B. Kirkbride Elementary School in South Philadelphia last February. There was no institutionalized response from the Philadelphia School District nor direct support of the principle and Kirkbride community.

After this incident, Juntos began to focus their advocacy on establishing sanctuary schools in Philadelphia.

“We just really want to make sure what happened last year with that immigrant mom doesn't happen again because, obviously, the children have been traumatized by that situation. So we don't want anyone else to experience it,” explains Edgar Villegas, a youth leader with Juntos and a student at CAPA High School. “Because, you know, we've all had that immigration scare. We're all worried about our parents every time they go to work.”

But, the Sanctuary Schools Campaign stems from more than the one incident.

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“[It] is a response to a history of moments, outlined by our community, that critically outline the need for a truer commitment from the District of Philadelphia to ensure our youth and parents are safe from criminalization, from failing infrastructure, from language barriers, and those that seek to make decisions that impact the well-being and education of our people without a direct conversation,” says Erika Guadalupe Nuñez, Director of Juntos.

As a proponent of Juntos’ Sanctuary Schools Campaign, Councilwoman Helen Gym encouraged the Philadelphia School District to honor the five pillars of the campaign.

“I think by having a multi-tiered platform on what a sanctuary school looks,” Councilwoman Gym shares, “Juntos is drawing out both areas of alignment and areas of specificity that apply to communities differently and that is really necessary in order for us to create the kind of school system that we want forever.” Councilwoman Gym spoke at the March 1st rally and has been involved with Juntos’ community organizing since 2006.

For Maria Mendez, a Juntos youth organizer and a student at String Theory High School, the fight for Sanctuary Schools is personal.

“It frustrates me how ICE and police are showing up at schools and how schools are criminalizing their students. I feel like we need to stop putting money towards the metal detectors and police and start putting the money towards their education--like books and laptops and essentials that kids need for school,” she explains.

“That's why [volunteering with Juntos] is important to me, because for me, it's important that my little sister, my cousins, and other students that wouldn't normally get the opportunity to be in a privileged school get the basic things that they need to feel safe and comfortable at school.”


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