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Thirty years after Plyler, immigrant students still face obstacles

If you want to see how the nation’s views on undocumented immigrants have hardened in recent years, you don’t have to read the majority opinion in Plyler vs. Doe, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that said public schools must educate all children regardless of their immigration status.

 Just read the dissent.

 “Were it our business to set the Nation’s social policy,” dissenting Chief Justice Warren Burger began, “I would agree without hesitation that it is senseless for an enlightened society to deprive any children — including illegal aliens — of an elementary education.” 

Burger goes on to say, however, that whatever “folly” may have existed by the State of Texas’ decision to refuse to educate undocumented children, that decision was not unconstitutional. Such sentiments are a far cry from the prevailing view in the 2011 Alabama House Bill 56, part of which requires school districts to report the number of undocumented children in their schools, said Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Saenz was one of six speakers at a Washington forum Monday titled Plyler v. Doe at 30 years: Keeping Public Schools Open to All of America’s Children. He said he wants people to read both Plyler’s majority opinion and the dissent to get a sense of the values expressed at the time. Also speaking at the event, sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, was Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez, the U.S. Justice Department’s chief civil rights enforcement officer, who was a keynote speaker the Council of School Attorneys (COSA) School Law Seminar in Boston.

Before Plyler could take effect, the justice department, joined by civil rights and religious groups, succeeded in securing a temporary court injunction on the part of the law that concerns school reports on students’ immigration status. But by then, Perez said, the damage had been done. Hispanic students were missing school and dropping out.

“We must never lose sight of the fact that this is about real people with real dreams,” Perez said.

That fact was underscored by William Lawrence, principal of Foley Elementary School in Foley, Ala. Soon after word of the new law reached Hispanic families, there was tremendous fear in the community that they would be targeted.

“The scene at the school was chaos,” Lawrence said. “There was crying and wailing” both from the Latino students and their non-Latino friends. Within weeks, 64 students would be withdrawn.

Ironically, 96 percent of the Hispanic students at Foley Elementary were born in the United States, Lawrence said. 

“It became clear to me that these children — American-born, U.S. citizens — were facing the brunt of the law,” said Lawrence, “a lifelong conservative Republican” who was nonetheless distraught over the measure that Alabama’s Republican majority pushed through the state legislature. 

If Lawrence’s political affiliation was ironic, there was irony in the actions of the Obama administration as well. Laura W. Murphy, the event’s moderator and director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, praised Perez and Russlynn Ali, the U.S. Department of Education assistant secretary for civil rights, for their work on behalf of immigrants’ rights. But she said that if an official from the Department of Homeland Security had addressed the group, the reception would have been much different.

Last October, the Obama administration reported nearly 397,000 people were deported over the past 12 months, the third straight year of record deportations. Although the administration has initiated reviews of more than 410,000 deportation cases over the past seven months, fewer than 2 percent have been closed, leaving immigrant rights groups frustrated, according to the New York Times.

Perez’s office and the Department of Education have taken a much different course, investigating cases in states such as Indiana, North Carolina, and Alabama, where immigrant students have encountered roadblocks to school registration. In most instances, Perez said, school districts have been helpful.

“When we work with school districts, we explain the dos and don’ts,” Perez said. “They’ve been very receptive, because teachers want to work with kids.”

Lawrence Hardy|June 12th, 2012|Categories: American School Board Journal, Assessment, Council of School Attorneys, Diversity, Immigrants, School Board News, School Law|Tags: , , , |

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