The past few weeks have been marked by several North Carolina municipalities - including the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, Brunswick County Board of Commissioners and most recently the Surry County Board of Commissioners - passing resolutions discouraging undocumented children, including unaccompanied minors, from attending schools in these counties.
Unaccompanied minors are typically defined as children without immigration status who enter the United States without a parent or legal guardian. These children, who often are escaping insurmountable poverty and violence in their home countries, are placed temporarily in the custody of a "sponsor" (often a relative) while they await their fates in the immigration courts.
The intent of these government acts, evidenced by Surry County's most recent resolution, could not be clearer: Unaccompanied minors are not welcome in these counties. The Surry County Resolution reads that it hopes the U.S. government will "refrain from any unaccompanied minors and adults in Surry County" and that "the influx of school-age minors will have an adverse effect on our local school district."
From the perspective of a civil rights attorney, such resolutions are immediately troubling. First, the North Carolina Constitution does not allow local school districts and counties to discourage children, no matter their immigration status, from enrolling.
In fact, the state constitution compels state institutions to protect this right. Article 1, Section 15 reads, "The people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the state to guard and maintain that right." Second, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Plyler v. Doe, has declared that school districts may not prevent educational access because of a child's immigration status. In other words, North Carolina public schools cannot deny a student a place in their classrooms because of their immigration status.
There is a fundamental conflict when elected county officials pass government statements that encourage the exclusion of unaccompanied minors when their school districts are required by law to accept them. School districts in these counties will knowingly or unknowingly violate the federal and state constitutions by considering national origin or immigration status in the school admission process if they follow the guidance of their elected officials.
At first glance, such resolutions may appear to be concerned with public health and safety. What if immigrant children bring communicable diseases into our school systems? However, a more thorough understanding of unaccompanied minors' entrance into local communities shatters these assumptions. For example, if an unaccompanied minor is detained at the U.S. border, he or she is processed and housed in a detention center. These minors receive immunizations at these centers or in group homes after processing. In any event, school districts are required to have immunization procedures for all students and can treat unaccompanied minors like any other child to enforce their policies.
It is not improper that these statements raise questions about our nation's immigration policy, but they send an incorrect message that unaccompanied minors may be discriminated against in their respective school districts. Local governments should be mindful of the deep and painful history of discrimination in this state that often culminated at the schoolhouse door. The U.S. Supreme Court was forced to assist in the desegregation of North Carolina's public schools as late as the 1970s. The history of school discrimination in this state is not ancient history.
These resolutions target the most vulnerable of the voiceless. Unaccompanied minors often have no parents in the United States, little or no English skills and no right to free legal representation at their immigration hearings. Instead of being welcomed into our communities (often briefly while their immigration cases are sorted out), they are being officially "discouraged" from entering the county.
Such resolutions run contrary to the state constitution and the U.S. Constitution. Counties should focus on ways to support inclusion in their communities rather than scoring political points against the most vulnerable.
George Eppsteiner is a civil rights attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham.