Nativism Blocked at the Schoolhouse Door

by Anurima Bhargava, Leadership in Government Fellow, Open Society Foundation and Senior Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School

Over the past few months, school administrators and teachers have raised concerns about a rise in harassment and bullying in schools; indeed, a significant percentage of the incidents of hate or bias being reported are occurring in the nation’s K-12 schools. At the same time, school officials are concerned about a drop in attendance of students who are undocumented, or who have family members who are undocumented. These students are afraid of being picked up at or on the way to school, or that they will return home and members of their family will be gone. Throughout the country, children are experiencing the loss of dignity and the rise of fear.

Since January, legislation banning undocumented students or the children of undocumented parents from schools has already been suggested in a few jurisdictions, and the White House is bringing in individuals who have long sought to end birthright citizenship, purportedly to stop mothers from running across the border (or jumping over the proposed wall) to give birth and to save the funds that would be expended upon the education of children born in the United States.

The Supreme Court weighed in on the Constitutionality of measures to limit or restrict the ability of students to attend school based on their or their parents’ immigration status in its 1982 decision in Plyler v. Doe.The Court struck down two Texas laws that sought to withhold state funding for the education of undocumented children and authorize school districts to deny public school enrollment to undocumented children.

The Court determined that the rationale for these provisions could not withstand the “costs to the Nation and to the innocent children who are its victims”: “By denying these children a basic education, we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions, and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our Nation.” In doing so, the Court recognized that for “freedom and democracy to thrive,” all children must be able to live and engage within the structures of our society. Put differently, the strength of the nation’s civic institutions relies on the ability of all those within its bounds to engage and participate.

The Court also emphasized the role of education in maintaining the fabric of our society and the specific costs of exclusion: “[w]e cannot ignore the significant social costs borne by our Nation when select groups are denied the means to absorb the values and skills upon which our social order rests.” Exclusion within the educational realm does not maintain social order; it undermines it. Education is not just the foundation of citizenship. It is the place we learn to live and work with one another.

The current nativism being promulgated at the federal level promotes the casting out of children and families, and schools as a place of fear and violence: through the failure to acknowledge or address the incidents of hate directed towards immigrant students; the targeting of immigrant students and families either through schools or in areas proximate to schools; the threats to schools that seek to protect their students; and the repeated suggestion of the latent criminality of immigrant children, for whom education is a cost and not a necessary investment. That nativism is a roadblock to the very freedom and democracy being sought, and defies the principles enshrined in Plyler: that the future of our Constitution lies in our children, and how they are all educated to understand and adopt its values.