Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos set off a furor over comments she made to members of Congress suggesting that schools should decide whether or not to report undocumented students and their families to federal immigration authorities.
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The head of the Education Department shifted the responsibility of reporting undocumented students to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to principals and teachers when she said on Tuesday, "it's a local community decision."
"I think that is — that is a school decision," DeVos said during her testimony before the House Education and Workforce Committee after Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., pressed her on the issue of undocumented students. "It's a local community decision and again I refer to the fact that we have laws and we also are compassionate and I urge this body to do its job and address and clarify where there is confusion around this."
Espaillat immediately rebuked the secretary's statement, stressing that immigration policies are defined and executed by the federal government, not by communities.
"Let me just remind Madam Chair that immigration law is federal law," he said. "It's not a local law. It's not governed by a municipality."
"You cannot have immigration law for one state be different for another state and it applies to everybody across the country," he added.
This is not the first time the secretary has faced controversy.
During her tenure at the Department of Education, she has faced criticism for comments she's made on school safety, black history, and other matters.
In March, she said arming teachers "should be an option for states and communities to consider" during an interview after a visit to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
In her highly contentious confirmation hearing, DeVos stirred up vehement objections to her nomination after hedging on an answer about guns and ultimately conceding that guns might be needed in schools in states like Wyoming to defend against "potential grizzlies."
Her most recent comments are drawing considerable backlash from civil rights groups.
"Let’s be clear: Any school that reports a child to ICE would violate the Constitution. The Supreme Court has made clear that every child in America has a right to a basic education, regardless of immigration status. Secretary DeVos is once again wrong," Lorella Praeli, director of immigration policy and campaigns at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.
During the heated exchange with Espaillat, DeVos referenced a Supreme Court decision that ruled that all children — regardless of their immigration status — are entitled to a free public education.
"This was a Supreme Court decision rendered many years ago and so there are undocumented children in K-12 education today that we support and we give education to on a daily basis."
Critics pointed to that same 1982 decision, Plyler v. Doe, as they sought to poke holes in her testimony.
"The Court determined in 1982 that the Constitution requires all public schools to provide a free public education, from Kindergarten to 12th grade, to every child, regardless of immigration status," Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said. "Any public school or school district that denies an education to any undocumented child – whether by refusing to enroll, by limiting access to the programs and benefits provided to other students, or by reporting a child to ICE – has violated the United States Constitution."