Fort Worth trustee to DeVos: 'We educate our kids, we don't report them'

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has come under fire from immigration advocates for saying local school communities should decide whether to report undocumented students to federal authorities.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has come under fire from immigration advocates for saying local school communities should decide whether to report undocumented students to federal authorities. AP

Educating undocumented students is part of an overarching theme in Fort Worth schools — all children are welcome to learn.

That's why Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' recent comments, stating that local communities and schools should decide whether to call federal authorities on students lacking immigration status, were seen as an affront to students' rights in Tarrant County's largest school district.

"Teachers have enough to worry about in the classroom with educating our kids," said Trustee Anael Luebanos, who has touted his immigrant biography. "They don’t need to take on the responsibilities of federal immigration agents. In Fort Worth, we educate our kids, we don’t report them."

That message has been reiterated by Superintendent Kent Scribner who has publicly supported teaching all immigrant students and warned against the elimination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, commonly referred to as DACA. On Feb. 28, 2017, the school board approved a resolution declaring schools “welcoming and safe” to all students, regardless of their immigration status.

"FWISD has already spoken about their commitment to create a safe learning environment for ALL of our students, and I am confident in Scribner's leadership to continue to make it a priority," Breinn Richter stated to the Star-Telegram in an email.

Richter, a member of the district's Racial Equity Committee, added: "Although our current (and future) Board leadership should take a more public stance about how this type of bigotry and discrimination will not be tolerated on our campuses."

Supporting school families

The issue resonates in Fort Worth schools, which is majority Hispanic and includes immigrants and refugees from many countries.

Fort Worth student have also marched and rallied around the issue of immigration reform. In September, more than 400 students marched in downtown Fort Worth urging leaders to keep DACA.

Trustee Ashley Paz said the school board has been working to build racial equity across the district for several years. She said that work includes making sure immigrant students feel safe.

The fears among immigrant families were very high last year when the school board passed the resolution, Paz said. At the time, students and families were sharing numerous reports of immigration crack downs. Paz said those fears were quelled, but families continue to worry.

“They need to know that their school district support them," Paz said.

Another school trustee, Jacinto Ramos Jr., also commented on the education secretary's words.

"DeVos’ comments are irresponsible at best," Ramos said in an email. "That kind of rhetoric is dangerous and sends a message to our community that continues to dehumanize children. FWISD will not entertain that narrative. We value ALL children in Fort Worth, TX."

A legal history

Luebanos said DeVos’ comments were shocking and "out of the mainstream and legally incorrect." The education of undocumented students was resolved in Plyler v. Doe, a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case, he said.

That case struck down a Texas statute that allowed school districts to deny admission to children with no immigration status and withheld funds from local school districts for the education of children who were not legally admitted into the U.S., according to a backgrounder published by the Texas Association of School Boards.

The statute was found to violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because it “allowed discrimination without a rational basis.”

"Her comments are also an open invitation to discrimination and racial profiling," Luebanos told the Star-Telegram. He said he is worried about young people who have protected immigration statuses, such as DACA, being targeted. The DACA program, started during the Barack Obama administration, allowed people who arrived without immigration status to live and work temporarily in the United States.

Mindia Whittier, a spokeswoman of the grassroots coalition United Fort Worth, said that for students, the combination of local and national anti-immigration rhetoric is damaging in the long-term.

"Just like 287(g), this is another example of how national leaders are trying to push their deportation agenda down to the local level," Whittier said. "Not only does this suggestion defy the Constitution, it threatens to traumatize children by causing them fear of attending school and it fuels anti-immigrant sentiment."

This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.