Undocumented Children in Rochester City Schools
Commissioner Elizabeth Hallmark
Rochester Board of Education
First, definitions for immigrant, refugee, and undocumented need clarification. While it’s legal for immigrants and refugees to be in this country, their reasons for coming here differ greatly. Immigrants are generally driven by economic factors or the desire to be close to family. They can move to this country only if they have work or a place to live. Refugees, on the other hand, seek asylum from war or persecution and need resettlement help from voluntary agencies at arrival. Undocumented immigrants are those who come here without papers, who stay illegally after failing to get refugee status, or who stay beyond a visiting visa. Some of these are undocumented children whose parents brought them here through no fault of their own.
While Americans have a variety of opinions about immigration, schools have followed sturdy benchmarks regarding undocumented children over the years. The landmark 1975 Supreme Court case “Plyler vs. Doe” established that equal protection under the law applied to undocumented schoolchildren, and therefore the State of Texas could not deny children access to public education. Likewise, Alabama law requiring schools to ask if a child was here legally before enrolling was also found unconstitutional under the Equal Protection clause. The reasoning is that if schools force children to reveal their undocumented status before enrolling, this will significantly deter them from attending due to fears of deportation or harassment.
Another important benchmark is the Fourth Amendment that guarantees the right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, and papers, and forbids unreasonable searches or seizures without warrant. The spirit of the Fourth Amendment is beautifully reflected in Rochester’s original 1986 Sanctuary City Resolution that was unanimously revised and approved by Rochester City Council on Tuesday, February 21, 2017. I applaud the Mayor and the City Council for this. Like the City, the Rochester City School District is called to protect and provide equal access to our schools, rejecting any measures that might put students or families in harm’s way.
What’s vital to know is that policy enforcement for immigrants and refugees is the duty of federal agencies rather than local government. Unless federal law is changed to make local municipalities do their bidding, school districts cannot be forced to collect immigrant status on their students. We must not take any actions that interfere with a child’s right to education, that prevent schools from being places of safety and emotional security for learning, or that increase the number of uneducated people in our communities. If we forget such obvious truths, we will be in danger of going against the basic mission and legal obligations of educational institutions.