Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Tuesday she does not think teachers and principals can call immigration authorities on students, a reversal from comments she made two weeks ago. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Tuesday walked back controversial remarks she made to Congress two weeks ago, clarifying in a Senate hearing that she does not think teachers and principals can report students to immigration authorities.

DeVos told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in late May that schools and local communities can decide whether to alert Immigration and Customs Enforcement about students who might be undocumented.

Her remarks were condemned by civil rights groups, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and more than 100 congressional Democrats, who said educators who call the immigration agency on students would be violating the law. They cautioned that her assertion could confuse educators and ratchet up fear in immigrant communities.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1982 in Plyler v. Doe that the right to a free public education extends to all young people, regardless of immigration status. Federal courts later ruled that compelling teachers to report students to immigration authorities violated the ruling, as did forcing students to disclose their immigration status because it could make students fearful of attending school.

DeVos issued a statement last week that attempted to clarify her remarks, saying “schools are not, and should never become, immigration enforcement zones.” But she was silent on the question of whether teachers and principals were permitted to call immigration authorities.

On Tuesday, DeVos reversed course after a lengthy exchange with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) during a hearing of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee. Murphy pressed DeVos to clarify her remarks five times before she definitively answered that she did not think that federal law allowed principals or teachers to call ICE on students.


Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) questions Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Tuesday on her immigration comments. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Here’s their exchange:

Murphy: So let me ask a question again, is it okay — you’re the secretary of education, there are a lot of schools that want guidance and want to understand what the law is — is it okay for a teacher or principal to call ICE to report an undocumented student?

DeVos: I think a school is a place for students to be able to learn, and they should be protected there.

Murphy: Is that a — you seem to be very purposefully not giving a yes or no answer, and I think there’s a lot of educators that want to know whether this is permissible.

DeVos: I think educators know in their hearts they need to ensure that students have a safe place to learn.

Murphy: It’s not — why are you so — why are you not answering the question?

DeVos: I think I am answering the question.

Murphy: Well, the question is yes or no. Can a principal call ICE on a student? Is that allowed under federal law?

DeVos: In a school setting, a student has the right to be there and the right to learn. And so everything surrounding that should protect that and enhance that student’s opportunity and that student’s environment.

Murphy: So they can’t call ICE?

DeVos: I don’t think they can.

Officially, the immigration agency has a policy of avoiding enforcement actions around schools, churches, hospitals and other “sensitive areas.” But civil rights advocates have panned immigration authorities for arresting parents near schools, saying it drives undocumented students and children of undocumented parents away from the classroom.

The Pew Research Center estimates 3.9 million schoolchildren had an unauthorized immigrant parent in 2014 — or 7.3 percent of all schoolchildren. About 725,000 of those children were unauthorized immigrants.