Policy

Julia Mejia wants to create ‘sanctuary safe spaces’ in Boston. Here’s what to know.

"We have a responsibility to protect our most vulnerable and uphold our most basic civil rights."

Newly inaugurated Councilor Julia Mejia smiles at the council after delivering her maiden speech in the Iannella Chamber in City Hall. Erin Clark / The Boston Globe

Julia Mejia, in her first legislative action as Boston’s newest at-large city councilor, is calling on officials to look at creating sanctuary safe spaces in places like public schools and libraries.

The hearing request comes just weeks after documents surfaced showing city agencies shared information on Boston Public Schools students with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement over 100 times in a three-year period.

“Using my lived experiences as the child of a woman who was undocumented and as somebody who continues to work with others who live in fear of deportation, I am submitting, as my very first action as Boston city councilor at-large, an ‘Order for a Hearing Addressing Civil Rights in the Creation of Sanctuary Safe Spaces in Boston,'” Mejia said, while delivering her maiden speech Wednesday.

Mejia aims to “engage all authorities involved in coming to a solution that does not further impede meaningful conversations but instead creates policies which seek to improve transparency and accountability,” she added.

Between 2014 and 2018, student incident reports from school police officers were shared in the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, or BRIC, which is accessible to the Department of Homeland Security, according to The Boston Globe.

The documents, which came to light in a lawsuit between the Lawyers for Civil Rights and the city, raised new questions about how officials interact with immigration enforcement officers, even under Boston’s “sanctuary city” status, which limits what information local law enforcement is allowed to provide to its federal counterparts.

Those regulations are spelled out in the “Boston Trust Act,” which officials first passed in 2014 and updated last month to officially bar city police from assisting immigration agents in non-criminal deportation cases. The changes came after concerns were raised when a federal court complaint alleged a local company called authorities in retaliation against an undocumented employee who was seeking worker’s compensation for an injury.

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According to the Globe, at least two student incident reports were cited by authorities among reasons to deport students, their lawyers said. Of 46 reports released earlier this month, half were filed from East Boston High School.

Among the documents included in the 2018 deportation case of one EBHS student was an incident report detailing his involvement in an altercation at school, the newspaper reports. A second student accused him of being in a gang and he was ultimately deported, his attorney said.

BPS ultimately changed its policy on student incident report sharing in 2018. A schools spokesperson told the Globe that school officers “do not have any mechanism to share information with the BRIC.”

The City Council passed a resolution affirming public schools carried “sanctuary” status, meaning ICE agents would need specific permission to set foot onto school property, among other provisions, in 2017.

But Mejia’s hearing order asks the city to consider a slightly different concept.

In it, the newly inaugurated councilor calls for feedback on the creation of “sanctuary safe spaces,” which she said Wednesday could include places like public libraries and the city’s youth and family centers.

The hearing will bring together BPS and law enforcement officials and immigrant advocacy groups to collect input and to “examine the impact on civil rights that these events have had on immigrant residents.”

“Fear of deportation deters immigrants from being civically engaged and hinders personal, social, and financial growth,” the order reads.

In her maiden speech, Mejia, a community activist who’s now the first foreign-born, Afro-Latina woman to serve on the council, called upon her own experiences as a child arriving in Boston from the Dominican Republic, a local kid with “tight shoes and wide open dreams.”

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She emphasized the council must take action to ensure every voice is heard.

Greater Boston, she noted, is among the top 12 metro areas in the country with the highest number of undocumented immigrants, the Pew Research Center reported last year.

“We have a responsibility to protect our most vulnerable and uphold our most basic civil rights: the right to (be) free from harm, the right to be heard,” said Mejia.

Councilor Lydia Edwards, whose district includes East Boston, underscored that the conversation should focus on the information that is gathered and where it goes, along with the role authorities have in the school system, not on the educators and employees of East Boston High School.

“I am going to be a stalwart advocate for the folks, those everyday folks who show up in East Boston High School — our teachers, our principal,” Edwards said. “Those folks are fighting every day to educate our kids and I did not want there to be a cloud of judgment on them or on their hearts.”

Mejia’s order was sent to committee for review.

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