Op-Ed: Schools Are Legally & Morally Obligated to Protect Undocumented Students, Not Report Them

Photo by Caiaimage/Sam Edwards

Thirteen years ago, as high school senior applying for college, I sat nervously as I watched my counselor review my first college application. As he stared at the blank Social Security number box, I bravely shared that I was undocumented and didn’t have one. Surprised by my revelation, he quickly insisted this couldn’t be possible. Unaware of how to support me, he proceeded to call immigration to find out how I could obtain this nine-digit number. My voice shook, and I remained silent when the immigration agent began asking me about my family, where we lived, and how we entered the country. Afraid, I hung up and told my counselor that I’d return, but I never did.

Although many years have passed since this incident, the ongoing anti-immigrant rhetoric and heighten enforcement actions by Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) forces me to relive this fear. Just recently, an ICE raid in a small town in Tennessee caused 500 students to miss school the next day. According to a report from the American Immigration Council, 5.5 million children have at least one undocumented parent; 4.5 million of those children are U.S. citizens. This large number of K-12 immigrant students combined with the increase of enforcement actions, is leaving many educators scrambling on how to support these students and our immigrant community questioning if schools are safe for their children.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s recent comments about schools being able to choose whether to report undocumented students blatantly contradicts our values and laws as a nation. Schools are meant to be safe havens that embrace and protect all students, regardless of their immigration status. It is not only the law, but our moral responsibility.

In 1982, through Plyler v. Doe, the Supreme Court ruled in a landmark decision that all children in this country have the constitutional right to receive a K-12 education regardless of their immigration status. The Court’s decision prohibits K-12 schools from requiring or asking students and their parents to disclose their immigration status. Secretary DeVos’ statement that schools have the choice to call immigration is a direct violation of this law. Although this law is not common knowledge to all educators, it is our responsibility to care for all of our students and not engage in actions that harm them.

According to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), schools must consult and get parental consent before sharing student’s information and education records with anyone, including immigration agents. Without a warrant signed by a Federal Judge, immigration agents cannot conduct searches at schools. In fact, pursuant to ICE policy and Department of Homeland Security Sensitive Locations Memo, enforcement actions should not take place in sensitive locations, which include schools.

As a former undocumented student, I became inspired to work in education so I could transform the K-12 experience for undocumented students and families. Over the last six years, I had the privilege of supporting educators across the country and provided guidance on practices to create safe and welcoming schools for all of students. These practices include building an inclusive culture by incorporating safe-space visuals, building meaningful and trusting relationships with students and parents, and having immigration resources readily available and visible throughout the school. Dr. Nancy B. Gutierrez, Chief Strategy Officer at NYC Leadership Academy, wrote a blog post delineating more concrete actions and best practices that educators must implement in their school communities to protect and support undocumented students and families.

When our students are afraid of institutions meant to protect them, it further contributes to injustice – not only for immigrant families and students, but for all of us as a nation.