Public schools are no place for immigration enforcement

Photo by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos told a congressional education committee this month that it is up to schools to decide whether they should report undocumented immigrant students to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She is wrong: Collaboration between school officials and ICE constitutes a school’s failure to represent undocumented students’ educational rights and interests.

School administrators must understand the law and their obligations to the students they serve. All school employees need to understand their responsibilities to protect undocumented students and families.

In 1975, the Texas Legislature passed a law authorizing school districts to deny enrollment to children who had not been “legally admitted” into the country. Districts could either bar undocumented children or charge them tuition, according to the law.

In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe that the Texas law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. States cannot discriminate against undocumented children on the basis of immigration status or deny them access to public education.

The Supreme Court highlighted the pivotal role of education in the life of children and society. The decision reinforced the prevailing notion that schools provide the primary means of preparing children with the tools to contribute to social, political and economic life.

Our public schools hold the potential to engender belonging and membership while also preparing students to be active and engaged citizens. Schools are entrusted to create safe and welcoming environments that foster learning, growth and development, and encourage attendance and participation within educational processes.

Devos’ statements, as well as numerous statements made by the president, have a chilling effect on families and students because they foster distrust between families and schools.

Families need assurances that they can trust schools to keep their children safe and that their constitutional rights will be protected. Though a school is considered a “sensitive location” — where ICE agents are expected to refrain from enforcement actions unless there is an extraordinary circumstance involving public safety — families should not have to fear that their information could be shared with ICE.

Distrust leads families to not send children to school, to volunteer or to interact with educators. Immigration enforcement in schools ultimately affects both citizen and undocumented families alike, as the increased likelihood of deportation and family separation forces an especially vulnerable population of children to deal with pervasive fear and uncertainty.

A significant body of educational research underscores the importance of trust between families and schools, as well as the need for children to feel safe and certain about their future.

Families play an important role in supporting school initiatives and ensuring student success. Creating distrust, uncertainty and fear will limit opportunities for engagement and therefore impact student achievement and overall school effectiveness.

District and school administrators must send clear messages that public schools are safe for all students and their families. To do so, they should take several important steps.

  • Districts need to adopt sanctuary policies that prohibit disclosure of immigration status to protect the fundamental rights of undocumented students.
  • School personnel must be trained to understand the regulations and privacy undocumented students require and not share any information without a warrant. Access to student records should only be allowed if ICE or another requesting agency has a valid court order or subpoena that complies with federal education or immigration laws and regulations.
  • School personnel must understand that while a school can ask for documents (e.g., utility bills or leases) to confirm residency within their district, they cannot ask for documents (e.g., Social Security Number) to prove a student’s citizenship or immigration status. Such inquiries are not relevant to establishing actual residency and violate students’ constitutional rights.

District and school administrators must recognize that they serve their communities, and that their primary mission is educating children. Any behavior that disrupts the school, makes learning more difficult, or threatens the well-being of students and their families represents educational malpractice.

The University of Texas at El Paso has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

David DeMatthews

Associate professor, the University of Texas at Austin

Jesus Cisneros

Assistant professor, University of Texas at El Paso