Civil Rights Groups Are Pressing Betsy DeVos to Affirm a Supreme Court Decision That Protects Undocumented Students’ Education. Here’s the Backstory on Plyler v. Doe
In recent news, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sparked controversy by suggesting that reporting undocumented students to authorities is a decision that schools can make. This statement received backlash from civil rights groups, lawyers, and educators, leading over 170 organizations to sign a letter requesting clarification on her comments.
The main issue at hand is the Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe, which was decided in 1982. This case established that all children, regardless of their legal status, have the right to a public education. Prominent figures in the education field, such as New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and former education secretary John King Jr., emphasized that schools cannot deny enrollment or adopt policies that discourage or hinder enrollment.
Both Chancellor Carranza and John King Jr. expressed their disagreement with Secretary DeVos’s assertion through Twitter. Chancellor Carranza stated that the Supreme Court has ruled on this matter, and it is the law that all students will be welcomed and educated in New York City Schools. Similarly, John King Jr. reiterated that schools cannot deny public education to students based on their immigration status, citing Plyler v. Doe as the Supreme Court precedent.
In response to DeVos’s statement, over 170 organizations signed a letter demanding public clarification. However, DeVos has not yet addressed this issue openly. The Department of Education spokeswoman, Elizabeth Hill, responded to the criticism by stating that schools must comply with Plyler and other relevant laws.
Despite the recent attention on Plyler v. Doe, many are not familiar with the case’s history. The case began when the Texas legislature revised the state’s education laws in 1975, allowing schools to withhold state funds and deny enrollment to students not "legally admitted" into the U.S. Tyler Independent School District in Texas, under the leadership of superintendent James Plyler, implemented a policy that required undocumented students to pay an annual tuition of $1,000.
As a result, a group of Mexican-origin children were unable to attend school. This led to a class action lawsuit on behalf of four families, who were identified by pseudonyms, hence the name "John Doe". The court determined that the statute did not serve its intended purpose of keeping illegal aliens out of Texas or improving the quality of education. The school district appealed the case, eventually reaching the U.S. Supreme Court.
On June 15, 1982, the Supreme Court ruled with a 5-4 decision that the policy violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The dissenting opinion argued that the court was abusing the 14th Amendment by granting rights to illegal aliens. The majority believed that the revisions imposed an unjust burden on children who had no control over their circumstances and that denying them an education would hinder their potential contributions to society.
Lawyers Jessica Hanson and David Hausman argue that the Supreme Court ruling in Plyler v. Doe applies to all cases where undocumented students are reported. They claim that reporting these students can have a chilling effect and discourage parents from enrolling their children, which violates federal law. They support their argument with Education Department guidance from 2014, a 2012 federal court ruling that deemed the reporting of student immigration status in Alabama unlawful, and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which prohibits schools from sharing personal student information without a court order.
In fact, if someone is reported, they may have grounds to sue the school and take the case to court, according to Hanson.
Fresh Research Indicates Significant Impact of Aggressive Immigration Enforcement on Students – Both Immigrants and Citizens – and Teachers
While the issue of immigration and the rights of undocumented immigrants has long been a contentious sociopolitical matter, tensions have intensified during President Donald Trump’s tenure. The president has made derogatory remarks about certain immigrants, labeling them as drug dealers and "rapists," and his attempts to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shields close to 700,000 undocumented individuals from deportation, have been thwarted. The recent rise in MS-13 gang violence in Long Island, New York, has further fueled Trump’s drive to restrict immigration.
However, Hausman emphasized that the right of undocumented students to receive a public education remains well-protected.
"The utmost priority is to counter the atmosphere of fear… and to underscore that statements [such as DeVos’s] are directly contradicted by the policies of the administration," he stated. "Schools continue to be a safe haven for undocumented students."
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