“The deprivation of public education is not like the deprivation of some other governmental benefit. Public education has a pivotal role in maintaining the fabric of our society and in sustaining our political and cultural heritage; the deprivation of education takes an inestimable toll on the social, economic, intellectual, and psychological wellbeing of the individual, and poses an obstacle to individual achievement.”
U.S. Supreme Court, Plyler v. Doe, 1982
Research by Marit Vike
Thirty-five years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling in Plyler v. Doe that has as much resonance today for educators as the day it was issued. The court, in a landmark decision, held that states cannot constitutionally deny students a free public education because of their immigration status.
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Faced with increased student absenteeism and fear because of Trump administration-ordered immigration sweeps on or near school grounds, educators and pubic school officials from New to York to California and points in between have taken steps to protect immigrant students and reassure their families.
Some recent examples include:
- More than a thousand activists rallied at the Texas State Capitol last month to deliver a powerful message in person to the Texas State Legislature and governor in response to a new state law that allows the police to inquire about a person’s immigration status during routine interactions such as traffic stops.
- The National Education Association is working with members on an information campaign to help educate members about the current situation and what they can do to support and protect their students. Member activists are working with NEA partner United We Dream to circulate their “know your rights” flier and other resources telling families what to do if immigration agents come to their homes.
- This spring the Milwaukee School Board unanimously passed a resolution declaring the district a safe haven for students and families threatened by deportation and vowing to oppose the actions of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents “by all legal means available.”
- In February, the Las Cruces, NM, educator-led union organized a social justice action team and reached out the school district. Educators mobilized when 2,100 students stayed home from school because of immigration raids in various parts of the city, including directly next to school grounds. The team worked with Las Cruces Public Schools to put together an informational forum for school district staff. All five newly elected school board members and the superintendent turned out to get information from civil rights organizations and faith-based advocacy groups. Subsequently, the district unanimously passed a “Safe Zones” resolution.
- The National Education Association has drafted sample resolutions for K-12 and higher ed campuses to educate school staff about the protections they can legally offer students. NEA’s safe zone resolution recommends steps for educators and administrators to follow if approached by ICE on school grounds, recognizes the constitutional right of undocumented students to a public K-12 education, as set forth by the Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe, and sends a clear message of support to students and their families, reassuring them they belong in the school community.
- More school districts and universities are declaring themselves safe zones. Most recently, Nevada’s Clark County School Board, which sets policies for the sixth-largest district in the nation, voted to protect the privacy of the district’s undocumented students. Clark County joins a growing number of districts that have taken action to protect their students and offer their families some peace of mind. They include New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — home to the nation’s three largest school districts — as well as Seattle, Denver, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Oakland, Calif., El Paso, Texas, Portland, Ore., Santa Fe, N.M., Palo Alto, Calif., and Montgomery County, Md. The list, while unofficial, keeps growing. Higher education institutions from coast to coast are vowing to offer sanctuary to their undocumented students.
For 35 years, Plyler v. Doe has ensured equal access to education for students regardless of status, but anti-immigrant sentiment continues to threaten that right. Increasingly, however, educators are showing they are willing to go the extra step to protect the right of all students to a public-school education — no matter where they live or where they’re from.