U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos once again displayed her lack of basic knowledge about her job when she told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce last week that individual schools could decide to report students and families to federal immigration authorities.
Her false statement is another step in the Trump administration’s quest to use children as a weapon in his fight against immigrants.
It is illegal for schools in the U.S. to ask about a student’s immigration status, or if the student is in the country legally. Every child has the right to a free public education, and rightly so.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided this question in 1982, six years after Texas passed a law to prevent undocumented children from attending public schools. The law, according to the court majority in Plyler v. Doe, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution’s 14th amendment.
The nation’s highest education official should know this background and be able to communicate accurate information. Now, DeVos may believe, or even wish, that schools are part of the immigration enforcement arm of the federal government.
She is, simply put, wrong.
The statements by DeVos illustrate bigger problems than her lack of job qualifications.
When DeVos was asked by Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., if school personnel should call federal immigration authorities if they suspected a child or family was undocumented, she responded, “These issues are state and local issues to be addressed and dealt with.”
She said, “That’s a school decision. It’s a local community decision.”
It’s not a local community decision, nor should it be. Constitutional rights should not be selectively enforced based on the whim or a particular teacher, principal or school board.
DeVos’ false statements are in step with a larger assault on families and children by the Trump administration.
The Department of Homeland Security now routinely separates children from their parents when they’re arrested and prosecuted for entering the country without immigration documents, even if they’re seeking asylum.
The Houston Chronicle recently reported on how difficult it is for parents to find their children after they’ve been taken by immigration authorities and sent to a federal shelter or into the care of another agency.
“In many cases they may never” find them, said Michelle Brané, executive director of the migrant rights program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, a national advocacy group.
“We have seen children as young as 18 months deported without their parents, and, more commonly, parents deported without their children. Parents arrive in Central America with no idea of how to get their children back.”
The Trump administration has also used young immigrants who were brought into the country, without proper legal status by their parents. Those enrolled in the DACA program – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – are in legal limbo after President Trump announced he was ending the program.
Legislative remedies have been stalled by a Republican Congress.
In 1982, the Supreme Court made the observation that the children targeted by the Texas law were being harmed because of their status as undocumented immigrants, which they acquired through no fault of their own. Children should not be punished for the actions of their parents, and depriving them of a free public education would be doing just that, the justices wrote.
The same is true of DeVos’ statements.
If schools were allowed to act as immigration agents, even if the local school board supported it, those paying the highest lifelong price would be children and the communities in which they live.