We recently recognized the anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that separate meant unequal, ruling against segregation for the first time since reconstruction. After the Court’s ruling, future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall — then head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund – warned that “the fight has just begun.”
Much work remains in our efforts to ensure diversity, inclusion and equality. To this day, our fight continues to guarantee that all students regardless of race, color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background or immigration status have access to equal and equitable educational opportunities.
I am appalled and highly concerned following the response and ambivalence displayed in the comments made by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during an Education and the Workforce Committee hearing earlier this week. The focus of the hearing was to examine the policies and priorities of the U.S. Department of Education. Frustratingly enough, this was Secretary DeVos’ first time testifying before our committee, more than 16 months after she accepted this position. My line of questioning focused on several of my priorities such as the accountability of loan service providers to student borrowers and state academic standards for English proficiency standards. I wanted to emphasize the Trump administration’s immigration rhetoric and enforcement of policies that have created fear and anxiety in communities across the country, as these harmful perceptions and backward initiatives directly impact our school, our students and their families.
Immigration enforcement should be prohibited at sensitive locations such as medical or health care facilities, public and private schools, places of worship, courthouses, DMV offices and locations that provide emergency services.
Under the authority of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) each have issued and implemented policies concerning enforcement actions at or focused on sensitive locations.
The goal of the policy put in place by ICE is to “ensure that these enforcement actions do not occur at nor are focused on sensitive locations such as schools…” This policy, signed on Oct. 24, 2011, continues to remain in effect, guaranteeing our students and their families the right to school drop off, school attendance, and school pickup without fear of being detained or forced into deportation proceedings.
It is clear that undocumented students should neither be taken from school bus stops, nor should their parents be detained as they drop students off at school. Period. In this environment and in the era of Donald Trump, it is important that we do everything we can to ensure students are not scared of going to school based on their immigration status.
As the secretary of Education, Ms. DeVos has a responsibility to ensure school districts comply with the 1982 Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe and must commit to maintaining the current guidance to assist districts meet their legal obligations to educate undocumented children.
Based on her testimony and uninformed response, I, along with numerous civil rights organizations and leaders and advocates from around the nation – including the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC); American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF); the Center for Social Justice; the American Immigration Council; America’s Voice Education Fund; and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law – agree that Secretary DeVos does not fully understand the law. The Plyler v. Doe landmark decision established the unconstitutionality of any action by the federal government, states, or local municipalities to deny students access to a free public education based on their immigration status.
Our teachers and school administrators are not enforcement officers. They are educators and dedicated public servants. To irresponsibly and recklessly saddle them with these responsibilities is not only ill-informed, but flat out wrong. The Trump administration’s clear lack of concern for civil rights is deeply troubling. The dog whistling of this administration serves as a call to action to reaffirm our efforts to protect civil rights and ensure opportunity and fairness for all individuals, especially our students, which are more critical today than ever.
If a principal or a teacher finds out that a student is undocumented, or that their family members are undocumented, we must do whatever it takes to ensure the student’s safety and protection from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, especially in a learning environment and within our nation’s educational system.
Our schools are not detention centers. Protecting the rights of students should be a top priority and fundamental pillar of our system, and the Department of Education and its stewards must do all that they can to promote, ensure, and guarantee federal protections for all students – regardless of their immigration status.
When this does not happen, we fail and our country suffers. If teachers are allowed to serve as immigration enforcement offices, the floodgates of violations will run rampant at numerous sensitive locations throughout the nation. We will see nurses report undocumented patients when their oath dictates they provide care without discrimination. We risk discrimination of the most vulnerable in our health facilities, nursing homes, places of worship and funerals.
Following her testimony, one thing is very clear to me, and that is Secretary DeVos is unqualified to lead the U.S. Department of Education. Her reckless statements – uninformed at best – regarding undocumented students, not only conflict with the law, but will lead to fear and intimidation among immigrant students across the country.
Further, Secretary DeVos’ attempt to clarify her comments through a spokesperson, have rung hollow. It is not enough. Her comments must be condemned. Secretary DeVos must be called out for being unqualified. I call upon Secretary DeVos to clearly state her commitment and that of the Department of Education that Plyler v. Doe will be upheld and undocumented students will be protected.
This is why I will continue my fight to ensure equality, fairness and opportunity for our students, immigrant youth, and the future of our nation.
Espaillat represents New York’s 13th District and serves as a member of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and the House Select Committee on Small Business. He is a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) and serves in a leadership role as CHC Freshman Representative to the Democratic Caucus. Espaillat’s district includes Harlem, East Harlem, northern Manhattan and the north-west Bronx.