WASHINGTON – Democratic lawmakers and advocates demanded Thursday that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos disavow her statement from earlier this week that schools can decide whether to turn over undocumented students to immigration officials.
If she does not, they said, she should resign.
“She’s already proven that she wants to dismantle our public schools, but now we are using as cannon fodder the very children that the Constitution and Supreme Court said are protected and have equal access and equal rights,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson.
Grijalva joined several Congressional Hispanic Caucus members, along with immigration advocates from UnidosUS, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), at a Capitol Hill news conference to decry what one called DeVos’ “awful legal policy.”
The event followed DeVos’ appearance Tuesday before a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing where she was asked if school officials should report students to Immigration and Customs Enforcement if they know that the student is undocumented.
“I think that’s a school decision, it’s a local community decision,” DeVos said. “I refer to the fact that we have laws and we also are compassionate.”
Those comments sparked an immediate backlash from critics, who said DeVos’ suggestion was unconstitutional.
“Let’s be clear: Any school that reports a child to ICE would violate the Constitution,” said Lorella Praeli, the ACLU’s director of immigration policy and campaigns, in a statement released Tuesday. “The Supreme Court has made clear that every child in America has a right to a basic education, regardless of immigration status.”
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Despite the outcry – Praeli said DeVos is “once again wrong” – DeVos has not backed down.
In an emailed statement Thursday, Education Department Press Secretary Elizabeth Hill said DeVos stands by her remarks to the committee and repeated DeVos’ statement that “we are a nation of laws and we are also a nation of compassion.”
Hill said DeVos maintains that schools must comply with all “applicable law and regulation” and that there are no plans to rescind any departmental guidance on the issue.
But Adam Fernandez, a legislative staff attorney at MALDEF, called DeVos’ statement “awful legal policy” for schools, which look to the secretary for guidance.
“It’s the job of the Department of Education to enforce civil rights laws in education,” Fernandez said. “It’s also the job of the department to give good legal advice to schools across the country.
“What DeVos did in such a public forum will create a lot of fear and could impact kids’ ability to go to school, and is bad legal advice for schools,” he said.
A spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education said the agency would not be alerted to any school reporting undocumented students to immigration officials, but he added that state schools comply with the Supreme Court ruling that all children are entitled to a public education, regardless of immigration status.
Heidi Vega, director of communications for the Arizona School Boards Association, said Thursday that schools reporting students to immigration officials is “unheard of” in Arizona and unlikely to happen in the future.
Grijalva said after the news conference that Arizona students and their families can rest assured that any immigration action taken in the schools would be illegal.
“To give them a little bit of comfort, it can’t happen in the schools,” Grijalva said. “Any thought of engaging in enforcement activities on kids and their families is illegal and shouldn’t be done.”
Grijalva also warned that any school officials who consider following DeVos’ statement could face legal action.
“I don’t think any school district, any administrator, any superintendent, or any school board should try to go rogue on this,” he said.