University of Colorado Boulder officials convened a panel Monday night on the topic of undocumented students in American schools and the issues facing them.
The panel was moderated by Violeta Chapin, an associate clinical professor of law, and included Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, Peter Roos, formerly with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Ming Hsu Chen, a professor and director of the Immigration Law & Policy Program at CU Boulder.
Speaking of the thousands of undocumented students in Colorado currently, Weiser said, "if you are here, we have an obligation to treat you fairly and avoid creating a caste system, which would happen if we refuse to give education based on immigration status."
The immigration conversation, and how it is impacting thousands of the nation's young undocumented students, comes at particularly acute moment. President Donald Trump in 2017 tried to end the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. At the time, he called it an unconstitutional use of executive power by his predecessor and revived the threat of deportation for those who had been brought to the United States illegally as young children.
But federal judges in the interim have ordered the administration maintain major pieces of the program while legal challenges move forward.
Weiser, referencing his own immigration background — his mother was born in a concentration camp a day before it was liberated, and migrated to America shortly afterward — said, "that's the American spirit of welcoming immigrants and the recognition of the purpose of amnesty.
"We are in a moment where that spirit is being tested," Weiser said. "In the meantime, we in Colorado have to do what we can to honor that spirit."
The debate over whether undocumented children have a right to public education reaches back to a 1982 Supreme Court decision on case with which Roos was involved.
The panelists on Monday discussed that case, Plyler V. Doe, which found that schools cannot deny access to public education through the 12th grade on the basis of a student's immigration status. The court, in its ruling, cited a portion of the 14th Amendment, its equal protection clause, and it interpreted language similar to that in the citizenship clause.
The case was narrowly decided, and when asked how she would have rewritten the decision, Chen said, "If I could have predicted the world we're in now, and the scope of immigration policies that seem to be coming down the pike every day, I would have worked really hard to clarify what makes immigrants and non-citizens so vulnerable.
"That's what we're really seeing today."