The law is clear, set forth in the 1981 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe: Children living in the United States have the right to attend K-12 public schools, regardless of the documentation or immigration status of the child (or their parents). In Plyler, the Court explained that denying undocumented students the same “free public education that [the state] offers to other children” would “foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our Nation.”
The Court added, “Even if the State found it expedient to control the conduct of adults by acting against their children, legislation directing the onus of a parent’s misconduct against his children does not comport with fundamental conceptions of justice.”
Yet as rhetoric around immigration has heated up under President Trump, there is growing evidence that immigrants and children who are undocumented are worried that school attendance could lead to detention and deportation. More than 80 percent of the 3,500 educators who responded to a 2018 survey said they had students who were worried about immigration enforcement. NEPC Fellow and UCLA Professor Patricia Gándara and her co-author Jongyeon Ee conducted the survey of more than 700 Title I schools serving high percentages of low-income students in 12 states with large shares of English language learners.
The majority of survey respondents also noticed increases in absenteeism that they attributed to concerns about immigration enforcement.
What can schools do to increase the odds that families or children without documents are not too frightened to exercise their legal right to a public education?
In the Q&A below, NEPC Fellow and Stanford Law School professor Bill Koski offers practical advice on measures that educators can take to create a safe, legal, and welcoming environment for students and families without documents. Koski directs the Youth and Education Law Project, an in-house legal clinic devoted to ensuring that disadvantaged children and communities have access to equal educational opportunities. He has represented hundreds of youth and families in race discrimination, student discipline, and disability rights matters and has served as co-counsel in four recent complex school reform lawsuits. He is the co-author of Protecting Undocumented and Vulnerable Students, along with Michael Wald, Jonathan Berry-Smith, Sarah Brim, Carolyn Hite, & Ray Li.
Q: I wonder if you could start off by briefly describing this issue facing undocumented immigrants and your work on the issue.
A: In California alone, at least 750,000 children live with a parent who is undocumented, including 250,000 children who are undocumented themselves. As a result of policies that have been adopted by the current federal administration, there is widespread anxiety among immigrant communities about Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE) actions. This anxiety has led to increases in student absences and declines in parent participation in school events, threatening students’ rights as established by Plyler.
Our work at the Stanford Law School’s Youth & Education Law Project has given us a front row seat to the fear and anxiety that children and parents are feeling, as many of our clients have asked us how they can protect their children, while confidently sending them to school and participating in school activities. Similarly, school administrators—with whom we don’t always see eye-to-eye—had been reaching out to us in solidarity with immigrant communities and asking how they can create a safe and productive learning environment for all families and children. That was where we aimed to step in and provide guidance to the many teachers, administrators, and other school leaders who wanted to establish policies to protect the right to education of both undocumented children and children with undocumented parents, including their access to a full range of educational activities.
Q: In your experience, what are some common misconceptions or misunderstandings that school officials have about laws governing their interactions with students who are undocumented or their families?
A: The biggest misconceptions surround data/information-collection from families seeking to enroll their children in school, and the handling of sensitive information.
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