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CEO Corner: Plyler v. Doe Protects Children, Despite DeVos’ Statements

By Luz María Frías, YWCA Minneapolis President and CEO
June 6, 2018
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Photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty

Recently, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos appeared before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. In response to Congressman Adriano Espaillat’s question about whether she thinks that school leaders should call U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on students or their parents, Betsy DeVos said:  “I think that’s a school decision, it’s a local community decision.”

DeVos’ statements led to an immediate outcry by immigrant advocates, constitutional scholars and human rights groups. DeVos’ statements are in contradiction to Plyler v. Doe, a 1982 U. S. Supreme Court decision which struck down both a state statute denying funding for education to undocumented children and a municipal school district’s attempt to charge undocumented parents an annual $1,000 tuition fee for each undocumented student to compensate for the lost state funding. The court held that undocumented students have a constitutional right to receive free education through our country’s public school system.

The impact of Plyler v. Doe was significant in 1982 and continues to be monumental as the tide of anti-immigrant bias continues to grow.

In the 1990s while I was practicing law, dozens of families called my office in tears stating their children had been denied enrollment because they were undocumented. Although the Plyler v. Doe decision had been in place for the better of 10 years, children were still being denied access to an education. I repeatedly challenged school districts across Minnesota and successfully pressed them to change their practices and enroll our immigrant children.

Moreover, DeVos’ statement contradicts current ICE policy, in effect since 2011, which ensures that ICE enforcement actions do not take place at schools, except in very specific circumstances:

  1. Where exigent circumstances exist;
  2. When other law enforcement actions exist that have led officers to a sensitive location; or
  3. Where prior approval is obtained from a designated supervisory official.

So if the law and policy clearly protect the rights of undocumented children to attend school, why would DeVos testify that schools can choose to report undocumented students to ICE even though doing so would be a violation of our Constitution?

In light of the courage displayed by the thousands of students mobilizing across the country with the DREAMer movement as well as the #NeverAgain movement, perhaps DeVos fears the prospect of an empowered generation of immigrant children and their ability to change the world.