Education Secretary Betsy DeVos provoked an outcry Tuesday when she said schools can choose to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement on potentially undocumented students.
“I think that’s a school decision, it’s a local community decision,” DeVos told the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “I refer to the fact that we have laws and we also are compassionate. I urge this body to do its job and address and clarify where there is confusion around this.”
DeVos was responding to a question from Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) about whether she thinks school leaders should call ICE on students or their parents.
Advocacy groups immediately protested her answer, pointing out that under the Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe, all children ― undocumented or not ― are entitled to a free public education. Some demanded that DeVos issue an immediate clarification in light of this fact.
Elizabeth Hill, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, provided HuffPost with a clarification of DeVos’ remarks on Wednesday. “Her position is that schools must comply with Plyler and all other applicable and relevant law,” said Hill.
During the hearing, DeVos did note that the 1982 Supreme Court decision requires public schools to educate all students, including those who are undocumented. Still, she repeatedly said it was a school’s decision if it wanted to call ICE on kids and their parents.
MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, issued a statement saying that DeVos should resign for “abject incompetence” if she does not “issue an immediate clarification that emphasizes the holding in Plyler.” The organization also said it “stands ready to hold accountable through legal challenge anyone in public education who attempts to report a student to ICE.”
DeVos’ comments could have a chilling impact on undocumented students attending schools, said Andrea Senteno, legislative staff attorney for MALDEF, on Wednesday. Indeed, around the country, schools have seen substantial drops in attendance after ICE raids at local businesses.
“We are very concerned her statement yesterday leaves open to interpretation what the law actually is for schools and administrators and those in the community,” Senteno said. “There are going to be students and family members who are not going to know what that means.”
The Education Department needs to make publicly clear “what the current law is and what students’ rights are,” said Senteno.
The American Civil Liberties Union also blasted DeVos’ comments at the hearing.
“Let’s be clear: Any school that reports a child to ICE would violate the Constitution. The Supreme Court has made clear that every child in America has a right to a basic education, regardless of immigration status. Secretary DeVos is once again wrong,” said Lorella Praeli, director of immigration policy and campaigns for the ACLU, in a statement.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of MALDEF legislative staff attorney Andrea Senteno.