In 1977, the public school system of Tyler, Texas, a small city 100 miles southeast of Dallas, began expelling students who couldn’t prove they were in the United States legally. The state had passed a law cutting off educational funding for undocumented children, and for Lidia and José Lopez, migrants from Mexico, it meant that their children had to leave their local public school. To reenroll them, they were told they’d have to pay a fee of $1,000 per child, more than the family could afford from their jobs harvesting roses for Tyler’s flower nurseries.
The Lopez family, and three other undocumented families, sued the district, as well as its superintendent, James Plyler. (Worried they’d be deported, the Lopezes showed up to their first hearing in a car packed with their possessions.) Five years later, the suit reached the Supreme Court, which ruled that the states could not deny undocumented children the right to a free public education. In the majority decision, Justice William Brennan wrote that the Texas law punished children for actions taken by their parents. This, he said, did not “comport with fundamental conceptions of justice.”
Those conceptions no longer seem to hold under President Donald Trump. Although nearly every statute, state and federal guideline, and Supreme Court decision written in the last half-century has made the well-being of children the default position, the president has largely ignored history and convention, even as it relates to the most vulnerable and valuable resource in society. In late May, his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, testifying before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said it was a “school decision … a local community decision” to report undocumented children to Immigration and Customs Enforcement—in direct violation of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler, which has stood for four decades.
“Back in 1982, when Ronald Reagan was in office—not exactly a time of government largesse—we still drew certain lines,” said Clare Huntington, a professor of family and poverty law at Fordham University. “There was an understanding at the time that certain things were off the table.” No longer. This is more than a vague erosion of “norms.” It’s a consistent tactic within the administration. Donald Trump, perhaps more than any other president in modern American history, has made children fair game.
Over the past year, Trump has ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allowed some undocumented residents brought to the country as children to work. He has made the separation of parents from their children official government policy, taking some 700 children from their relatives since last October. And in a dramatic break from precedent, his administration has said that it is implementing a new policy: fingerprinting all sponsors who step forward to shelter unaccompanied minors and collecting information about their legal status—a change that, immigrant advocates say, will discourage parents and other relatives from collecting their children, for fear of being deported themselves.
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