Education Secretary Betsy DeVos continues to face a backlash after she told Congress that schools should be able to decide whether to report undocumented students to immigration authorities, an assertion that critics say flies in the face of the law and could stir fear in immigrant communities.
DeVos appeared before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce late last month. When Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) asked her if principals or teachers had a responsibility to report undocumented students and their families to immigration authorities, DeVos replied: “Sir, I think that’s a school decision. That’s a local community decision.”
Civil rights groups swiftly condemned the remarks, noting that the Supreme Court ruled in the 1982 case Plyler v. Doe that undocumented children are entitled to a public education. Since then, courts have struck down measures that could deter undocumented or immigrant children from showing up to school, such as requiring a U.S. birth certificate or threatening to call immigration authorities. About 725,000 K-12 students were undocumented in 2014, the most recent data available, according to the Pew Research Center.
Not long after DeVos’s appearance, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus held a news conference demanding that she set the record straight.
“This is wrong,” Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said two days after the secretary testified to Congress. “The secretary showed a sophomoric understanding of the law and at minimum used her bully pulpit to recklessly send a mixed signal to school districts across the nation that complying with federal law and long-standing legal precedent is optional.”
DeVos attempted to clarify her comments last week, saying in a statement that “schools are not, and should never become, immigration enforcement zones.” That is the position held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has a policy of avoiding enforcement activity in “sensitive areas,” such as schools, hospitals and churches.
“Our nation has both a legal and moral obligation to educate every child. This is well-established in the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler v. Doe and has been my consistent position since day one,” DeVos said. “Every child should feel safe going to school. It is unfortunate that those who seek to polarize and divide have intentionally tried to misrepresent my position on this issue to cause unnecessary fear for students and families.”
DeVos’s spokeswoman, Elizabeth Hill, declined to answer questions about whether the secretary believes that schools have the authority to call immigration authorities on students, as she suggested during her congressional appearance. DeVos said in her statement that her comments were misinterpreted by critics.
Civil rights groups and congressional Democrats continue to press DeVos to clarify her department’s stance, including whether she thinks schools can call immigration authorities on students. In a letter set to be delivered Monday to DeVos, dozens of congressional Democrats blasted her remarks and her failure to clearly articulate her position.
“Your words and actions matter,” they wrote. “Left uncorrected, your testimony leaves state and district officials and public school personnel with the false impression that they may willfully violate the U.S. Constitution.”
“It is imperative that you immediately make clear publicly, to children, their families, and educators in every public school in multiple languages and through all of the Department’s communication channels that all children in this country have a right to a public education from kindergarten through 12th grade regardless of their immigration status,” the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights wrote in a letter to DeVos. More than 160 civil rights groups signed onto the letter. “Schools may not do anything to deny or chill access to that constitutional right, including by reporting, or threatening to report, children to” ICE.
Last week, school officials in Maine, Tennessee and Texas reassured students that they would not call immigration authorities on them.
“Our responsibility is to educate all students and keep them safe,” Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement. “We want every child to feel safe and wanted in their school, and we hope our district leaders will be proactive in sharing that message with their school communities.”