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Undocumented Students Deserve to Feel Safe in School

Undocumented students cannot be denied equal access to education. We know this because the Supreme Court said so in the 1982 case Plyler v. Doe. The Plyler Court described education as “perhaps the most important function of state and local governments,” and ultimately held that a public education “is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

This means schools can’t call Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on their students. Despite this settled Supreme Court case law, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently made a series of confusing statements. At first, she said it’s up to local schools to decide whether to call ICE on their students. When called out, she issued a vague non-statement that failed to clarify her initial testimony and blamed those who corrected her for her own confusing and misleading statements. She finally admitted that she doesn’t “think” schools can call ICE on students. Betsy’s confusion aside, the fact and law remains: schools can’t call ICE on their students.

But this should be the bare minimum of what we expect. Undocumented students deserve to feel safe in school. Especially when immigrant families are under attack, schools should be sanctuaries where every child is valued, protected, and empowered regardless of immigration status.

Schools can and should take steps to make all immigrant students feel safe and valued, following both the letter and spirit of Plyler. Whether you are a parent, teacher, student, or concerned community member, you can advocate with your local school to ensure they do so.

Facilitating Inclusivity in Schools

  • Schools can show they are a place that values diversity and welcomes all students regardless of national origin. For example, classrooms could display the flags of many countries.
  • All essential school materials and letters sent home should either be translated into a student’s (and their parents’/guardians’) native language, or explain how students and families can request to have the document translated.
  • All immigrant students who need it should have access to appropriate English Language Learner (ELL) programs.
  • Schools should encourage inclusive language that avoids singling out undocumented students in school. Examples:
  • Say “being a good person” instead of “being a good citizen”
  • Refer to “civic responsibility” instead of “citizenship” (as a value)
  • Say “undocumented” instead of “illegal”
  • Students need supportive people in school. Immigrant students are living in a political climate that is hostile to them, and they know it. Schools should ensure that counseling is available for all students when they need it.
  • Schools should address all incidents of harassment and bullying based on a student’s national origin, as required under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Schools should understand that even students of the same race or ethnicity can bully or harass each other on the basis of national origin.
  • Schools should share Know Your Rights materials with all students and families so they are prepared if they ever come in contact with law enforcement and ICE. Here are a few samples schools can share:
  • Teachers can engage in classroom discussion of immigration without making the humanity of immigrant students a subject for debate. In the right context, immigration history and policy can be discussed in the classroom without making undocumented students feel that they are under a microscope, or the subject of a debate on whether immigrants are “good or bad for the country.”

Avoiding the School-to-Deportation Pipeline

  • Address and change school policies that allow students to be arrested or referred to law enforcement for school-based misbehavior. Arresting students for minor, school-based misbehavior is already bad policy, but under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policies arresting an undocumented child may put them on a path to deportation.
  • Find out whether your school or district has School Resource Officers (SROs) that have an agreement with ICE, and if so urge the school board to void this agreement.
  • Ensure that your school complies with the Federal Educational Records Privacy Act (FERPA). FERPA is a privacy law that protects student information from being shared with third parties—including ICE via responses to administrative warrants. This means ICE should not in any circumstance be able to receive confidential student information.

It's time for change, and we must act now. Time's up.