Education Rights for Immigrant Children

On Monday April 15 two events focused on the intersection of immigration and education take place at CU Boulder’s law school.The debate on whether undocumented children have a right to public education goes back to a Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe in which the Court ruled that the States cannot constitutionally deny students free public education due to their immigration status. The Court found that any possible resources that might be saved by excluding undocumented children from public schools were outweighed compared to the negative impact on society denying them an education would have.


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Peter Roos, formerly with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund argued in front of the Supreme Court in the Plyler case. “We had about a week long trial, and the State tried to defend it, it drew witnesses, it claimed that undocumented kids were taking money away from citizens. They really needed to do more than that, they needed to show that even if there was some truth to that you still need a further reason for choosing not to educate undocumented immigrants.”

Although undocumented children have been guaranteed primary and secondary education, Hiroshi Motomura, a professor at UCLA Law, says that major problems facing undocumented students still persist. “One is that the Plyler decision guarantees (education) only K through 12, and so we’ve seen a whole generation of kids get through K through 12 but then really have other education forcibly stopped in the sense that there are either admission barriers or financial aid barriers to really continuing school. So that’s one area in which Plyler reaches its limit when you get through a high school.”

Another issue however is simple access to education. For instance, if a parent feels that they’re under a consistent threat of immigration enforcement, they’re much less likely to drive their child to and from school on a daily basis, inhibiting the child’s ability to learn and participate in school. The fear of immigration enforcement is not unfounded, with ICE arresting individuals in areas that have previously been off limits, like schools, courthouses and hospitals.

“There’s a lot of concern right now that even getting certain kinds of medical care, if people who are even eligible for medical care, for example citizen children with permanent residence. I think the climate that we have right now has really inhibited people from getting the medical care that they’re entitled to under law because of the concern that it might be held against them later, so this isn’t really an undocumented phenomenon, it’s really the enforcement climate.”

Certain institutions and communities in Colorado are declaring themselves as sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants, including the University of Colorado as well as other Universities and colleges across the state. These groups and institutions say they’d like to create safe places for undocumented immigrants to gain their education without fear.

Past, present and future of Undocumented Students will be moderated by Roudy Hildreth, CU Engage at 11:45am at the Wolf Law Building. Peter Roos from Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, will recant his role in bringing the case to the Court, and Hiroshi Motomura, UCLA Law, will discuss current pressures. A student currently affected by the politics of immigration will also speak.

At 5:30pm, in the Wittemyer Courtroom at the Law School, a panel will moderated by Violeta Chapin, Associate Clinical Professor of Law, Phil Weiser, Colorado Attorney General, Peter Roos, Ming Hsu Chen, professor and director of the immigration law and policy program at Colorado will speak as well as others. They will be talking about Undocumented Students in American Schools. There will be time for questions and answers.


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