AFTER THE Supreme Court ruled, 36 years ago, that unauthorized children have a right to public education, some anti-immigrant officials tinkered with escape clauses, workarounds and other means of defying the law of the land. None went so far as Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, who has doubled down by actively encouraging such lawlessness, declaring that individual schools and localities can decide whether teachers or principals can report undocumented students to immigration authorities. In fact, they can’t.
In an appearance before Congress last week, Ms. DeVos suggested lawmakers enact legislation “where there is confusion around this.” The confusion, if any, is exclusively hers. In Plyler v. Doe, in 1982, the high court struck down laws in Texas authorizing local school districts to deny K-12 education to children who had entered the country illegally. Undocumented children, as people “in any ordinary sense of the term,” are entitled to protection by the Constitution’s 14th Amendment — unless there is some countervailing state interest to justify discrimination against them, which the court said there is not.
That’s the rub for the Trump administration, which has shown by its actions, and words, that it doesn’t regard children who entered the country illegally as people “in any ordinary sense of the term.” The president himself referred vaguely to some young immigrants — perhaps gang members, perhaps others — as “animals.” Days later, he added: “They look so innocent. They’re not innocent.”
In a similar vein, his administration has undertaken systematic efforts to separate migrant children, babies and toddlers included, from their parents who cross into the country without papers. The goal is to deter potential illegal immigrants, regardless of the psychological damage that may be suffered by children. We repeat: children.
In the past, federal courts have struck down a proposition passed by California voters in the 1990s requiring schools to expel undocumented students and report them to federal authorities, and blocked key parts of a 2011 Alabama law directing schools to ask students about their immigration status. The Obama administration, saying some school districts were trying to scare away unauthorized pupils, warned them against requiring documents, as a condition of enrollment, that illegal immigrants would lack.
Heedless of that precedent, Ms. DeVos, asked whether teachers and principals were obliged to drop a dime on undocumented students or their families, said flatly, “These issues are state and local issues to be addressed and dealt with.”
It’s hard to know whether the secretary, whose gauzy pronouncements on policy in the past have raised questions about the breadth of her expertise, is ignorant of the law or knows it but is loath to endorse it, given the administration’s distaste for any policy favoring illegal immigrants. Either way, the effect is likely to be the same: a chilling effect on parents who would send their undocumented children to school.
That’s senseless, given the cost identified by the Supreme Court in the Plyler ruling: “the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare, and crime.”