Public schools are struggling with declining enrollment.

Public schools are struggling with declining enrollment. Credit: Daniel Brennan

Years ago, in Camden, New Jersey, I taught a class on contemporary politics. One day, a distressed student approached me after class. She was undocumented, she told me, and worried about applying to college.

The student asked if I thought filing an application for federal financial aid could put her family in danger of deportation. She was just 3 years old when her family had moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic; New Jersey was the only home she ever knew. The shame in her eyes was heart-wrenching.

I pointed the student to resources to sort out her options and rights. At the time, I was unsure of what would happen.

A year later, happily, the student had graduated from high school and was headed to college. Her dream was possible because of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, implemented by the Obama administration.

DACA protects young undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements from deportation, allowing students like mine to remain in the country they call home to work or obtain a college education.

Earlier this month, the Trump administration announced that the DACA program would end in March 2018.

We already know that DACA improves the lives of its recipients and their families, and that DACA recipients are making significant contributions to the economy by creating new jobs, starting businesses, and buying cars and homes. All of this translates into more revenue for states and municipalities in the form of sales and property taxes.

But there is another, less discussed harm that repealing DACA will do.

Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1982 decision in Plyler v. Doe, public schools must educate all children, including those who are undocumented. While schools nationwide serve DACA recipients and DACA-eligible students, urban public schools take in the majority of students in this category.

Already, these schools are struggling with declining student enrollment as wealthier families turn to well-funded suburban districts or privately run schools.

Eliminating protections for the roughly 1 million undocumented K-12 students in the U.S. threatens a core group of those who still attend urban public schools. Removing these students from our country - and our schools - further endangers public education in our nation’s cities.

As public schools decline and close, many, including Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, frame school privatization as the logical option to fill the gap. DeVos bizarrely told DACA-protected and DACA-eligible students to “take courage” following the administration’s announcement, as if to say there was nothing she could do. Meanwhile, five former secretaries of education have come out against Trump’s action.

The president has stated that he supports legislation to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation. But his initial statement contains words that can only set off alarms. Under DACA, Trump said, “few in Washington expressed any compassion for the millions of Americans victimized by this unfair system. Before we ask what is fair to illegal immigrants, we must also ask what is fair to American families, students, taxpayers, and jobseekers.”

DACA recipients are a proven benefit to our country and our economy. A byproduct of their removal will be the hastened shuttering of public schools in America’s cities.

Rann Miller directs the 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federally funded after-school program located in southern New Jersey.