Undocumented Students: Lawmakers, civil rights groups question Betsy DeVos on immigration

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According to NASSP, approximately 1.4 percent of K–12 students in the U.S. are undocumented. School leaders and principals might wonder about their legal obligations when serving this population of students.

  • Should school officials report immigration concerns to government agencies?
  • Are schools permitted to require a Social Security number during enrollment?
  • Can school officials refuse to allow federal law enforcement on campus?
  • Will turning over student data to law enforcement violate privacy laws?

Let’s take a look at the current status of the law with regard to public school students who are undocumented.

Plyler Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court Plyer Decision of 1982 stated:

No State shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Under this decision, the court ruled public education can not deny education to undocumented without showing some “substantial state interest” to do so. The purpose was to ensure that all children can eventually contribute to the progress of “progress of our Nation.” Essentially, a school district can not hold children responsible for the consequences of their parents’ actions.

In the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, the Department of Education clarified:

Under Federal law, State and local educational agencies (hereinafter “districts”) are required to provide all children with equal access to public education at the elementary and secondary level. Recently, we have become aware of student enrollment practices that may chill or discourage the participation, or lead to the exclusion, of students based on their or their parents’ or guardians’ actual or perceived citizenship or immigration status. These practices contravene Federal law.

In Alabama, 2011, the state attempted to circumvent the Department of Education by forcing schools to report the immigration status of families. A federal appellate court blocked this practice as defined under HB 56, but the issue has become slightly muddied under the Trump administration.

When asked if schools are responsible or should report suspected undocumented families, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos stated, “Sir, I think that’s a school decision. That’s a local community decision.”




Balingit, M. (2018, June 4). Lawmakers, civil rights groups call for Betsy DeVos to set the record straight on immigration and schools. The Washington Post. Retrieved from www.washingtonpost.com/news/education/wp/2018/06/04/lawmakers-civil-rights-groups-call-for-betsy-devos-to-set-the-record-straight-on-immigration-and-schools/?utm_term=.f7f3da927d77

Dailey, A. C. & Rosenbury, L. A. (2018). The new law of the child. Yale Law Journal, 127, 1448-1537.

Lal, P. & Phillips, M. (2018). Discover our model: The critical need for school-based immigration legal services. California Law Review, 106, 577-90.

Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982).

Strauss, V. (2014, Nov. 21), How many K–12 students are illegal immigrants? The Washington Post. Retrieved from www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/11/21/how-many-k-12-students-are-illegal-immigrants/?utm_term=.749789b926d5

United States v. Alabama, 691 F.3d 1269 (11th Cir. 2012).

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