Foreclosing DACA debate puts politics above people

Foreclosing DACA debate puts politics above people
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As the national conversation about the plight of undocumented immigrants and students escalates, a solution seems beyond reach because gridlock in Congress threatens to foreclose meaningful debate that could bring certainty to the lives of hundreds of thousands of undocumented students and graduates of our public schools. The one ray of hope to move the country forward lies in the bipartisan grassroots movement in the House of Representatives to circumvent the gridlock and bring the question to the House floor so that Congress can begin to find legislative solutions for immigration reform.

While the question of what is to be done about undocumented children is one that our national leaders hesitate to resolve, the answer is clear for public schools: We educate all of our children, regardless of how they got here — whether their parents came on the Mayflower or on a raft; whether they waited their turn on a State Department list, or took their chances crossing through unsanctioned, dangerous territory. Public schools have an obligation to educate our children; their right to access a free public education is constitutionally enshrined.  


But, it is not enough to grant undocumented students the right to access public education. As a nation, we also must safeguard them and their communities from the irreparable harm caused by the threat of deportation, through programs such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) or through legislation that codifies its salutary purposes.  


For all the charges of unconstitutionality and federal overreach, DACA is precisely the kind of “discretionary federal power to grant relief from deportation” that the Supreme Court said the federal government could exercise in its landmark 1982 Plyler v. Doe decision recognizing the right of undocumented students to attend public school for free.

Without DACA or similar legislation, our schools and communities, as well as our national economy, will suffer. Policymakers’ gridlock puts the nation on a path leading to significant negative consequences for learning in public schools, quality of life for families, and economic well-being in communities. We will lose over 800,000 young adults who have attended school, established careers and contributed to America’s communities and growing economy.  

The fabric of our grand experiment in democracy will be poorer if we deny ourselves the benefits of including those children we have raised up with the promise of opportunity and faith in the American Dream. Sadly, the toll of federal inaction will be borne by those with little responsibility for their situation. How do we explain to our children that the American Dream is closed to them as a result of the actions of parents or guardians, over which they had no control? And how can we expect children to be invested in their learning, when the only certainty the future presents is removal from the one country they have ever known? This is why temporary patches to immigration policy will not suffice.

The problems of inaction threaten to ripple throughout our schools, beyond the impact on undocumented students. As the nation’s largest collective employer, school districts are impacted as both educators and employers. In some states, as many as 5,000 educators could be affected, while the unpredictability of sudden staff and student departures could distress learning communities and threaten educational outcomes. And, the loss of DACA educators will worsen already-serious teacher shortages, deprive students of mentors and role models, and deplete the teaching corps of much-needed diversity. And, because most states fund public schools on a per-pupil basis, reduced student enrollment means reduced funding for programs and educational activities that all students enjoy.

It makes little sense to deport children in whom we have invested — youths we have educated as Americans, who have grown up to be contributing members of our society and who identify as American in all respects but one. Congress needs to act now. Our communities and undocumented immigrant students deserve an answer. They deserve to know that they have a place in our American society.

Thomas J. Gentzel is executive director and CEO of the National School Boards Association, which advocates for equity and excellence in public education through school board leadership.