Washington, D.C. – Ahead of her testimony today in front of the Senate Appropriations Sub-Committee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, U.S. Senators Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), and Representative Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) led 118 Members of Congress in calling on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to immediately correct her recent false and dangerous testimony asserting that local schools have the discretion to allow personnel to report undocumented students or family members to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for potential deportation.
“As the chief official for our nation’s public education system, it is your job to uphold federal law and protect and promote the civil rights of all students,” the Members wrote. “Your words and actions matter. Left uncorrected, your testimony leaves state and district officials and public school personnel with the false impression that they may willfully violate the U.S. Constitution, potentially subjecting any such officials or personnel who rely on your statement to liability. Left uncorrected, your testimony leaves immigrant communities fearful of interaction with public schools. Left uncorrected, your testimony could do irreparable harm to educational opportunity for undocumented children.”
DeVos made the comments during a House Committee hearing in response to a question from Rep. Espaillat.
A copy of the letter can be found HERE and below:
Dear Secretary DeVos:
On Tuesday, May 22nd you appeared before the Committee on Education and the Workforce of the U.S. House of Representatives to provide testimony on the policies and priorities of the Department of Education (Department). We write seeking swift, decisive, and widely disseminated correction to the inaccuracy in your sworn testimony that was provided in response to Rep. Espaillat:
“Rep. Espaillat: There are many undocumented children attending schools right now, all over the country. Do you feel that government – that we in government – should fund the education of these children?
Sec. DeVos: Well, of course, we do because this was a Supreme Court decision rendered many years ago, and so there are undocumented children in K12 education today that we support and we give education to on a daily basis.
Rep. Espaillat: …Inside the school, if a principal or a teacher finds out that a certain child is undocumented or his or her family members are undocumented, do you feel that that principal or teacher should, is responsible to call ICE and to have that family reported?
Sec. DeVos: Sir, I think that’s a school decision. It’s a local community decision, and again, I refer to the fact that we have laws and we also are compassionate, and I urge this body to do its job and address and clarify where there is confusion on this.”
The Supreme Court decision you seemingly reference, the 1982 ruling in Plyler v. Doe (Plyler), affirmed the constitutional right of all children, regardless of a child’s or a child’s parent’s immigration status, to a public K-12 education. This constitutional right was reaffirmed by the 2012 unanimous ruling of the 11th Circuit in Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama v. Alabama (HICA). You rightly note that the precedent set by Plyler requires states and school districts to provide, including through the obligation of public funds, “education on a daily basis” to undocumented children. Regrettably, that is where the accuracy of the exchange ends.
Your clear assertion of local or even school-based discretion to set policies or employ practices empowering school personnel to report undocumented children or their family members to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for potential deportation is not only wrong, but also dangerous. As established by Plyler, reaffirmed in HICA, and further clarified in your Department’s existing sub-regulatory guidance, any such policy or practice would burden an undocumented child’s right to a public education under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, in direct contravention of Plyler. On this point, there should be no confusion. In fact, in a November 2017 letter to the Ranking Members of the House Committees on Education and the Workforce, Judiciary, and Homeland Security, a top Department official referred to the existing guidance, promulgated in 2014, as evidence of the Administration’s intent to uphold Plyler.
Additionally, any such practice would violate Titles IV and VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and accompanying regulations, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin (among other factors), by public schools, and discrimination by recipients of Federal financial assistance of the basis of race, color, or national origin, respectively. As your Assistant Secretary noted in the above-referenced November 2017 letter, the Federal Government is charged with enforcement of the Civil Rights Act.
As the chief official for our nation’s public education system, it is your job to uphold federal law and protect and promote the civil rights of all students. Your words and actions matter. Left uncorrected, your testimony leaves state and district officials and public school personnel with the false impression that they may willfully violate the U.S. Constitution, potentially subjecting any such officials or personnel who rely on your statement to liability. Left uncorrected, your testimony leaves immigrant communities fearful of interaction with public schools. Left uncorrected, your testimony could do irreparable harm to educational opportunity for undocumented children.
In closing, while a statement issued by the Department to limited stakeholders on Wednesday, May 30th affirms your commitment to broadly uphold Plyler, it fails to sufficiently clarify what that commitment means in light of your factually inaccurate and widely-viewed testimony that is a matter of public record. Your claim, in the May 30th statement, that your words are being intentionally misrepresented, is baseless, as the public record clearly reflects.
As you stated on May 30th, “all children should feel safe going to school.” Unfortunately, due to your conflicting and ambiguous public statements, including words that are a matter of public record, families are left to fear deportation at the hands of school personnel. We reiterate our call for swift, decisive, and widely disseminated correction to your testimony that unequivocally clarifies state and school district obligations to serve all children, regardless of immigration status.