Immigration Enforcement and Public Schools

As RI settles into another school year, the nation continues to deal with a summer marked by news stories of detention camps, family separations and protests in response to the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

According to the American Immigration Council, RI has a large immigrant population, including many immigrants from the Dominican Republic — 30,000 undocumented immigrants comprised 21% of the immigrant population and 2.9% of the total state population in 2014. It further reports that 37,475 people in Rhode Island, including 14,507 born in the US, lived with at least one undocumented family member between 2010 and 2014.

Local political leaders, including in Providence and Cranston, two of the state’s largest cities, have publicly made comments related to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the policies that they would follow with regard to the organization’s tactics.


Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has made comments over the past year and a half that indicate his resistance to cooperation with ICE. Last month, Providence joined Central Falls and other cities in a lawsuit over immigration-related requirements for law enforcement agencies, according to WPRI.

In Cranston, Mayor Allan Fung, the Republican candidate for governor, has said publicly that he plans to “expand the role” of his city’s police department in identifying individuals to ICE. The move drew criticism from activist organizations and protests outside his office last month.

But how do ICE tactics affect students in our state? Children have a right to a public K-12 education, which is afforded them regardless of immigration status. This right was determined in the 1982 Supreme Court case, Plyler vs. Doe, during which the court struck down state and municipal provisions in Texas that attempted to deny educational funding and charge for the loss of funding, respectively.

The Providence Public Schools told Motif that they do not have a specific policy with regard to undocumented immigrant students and families, but adheres to federal regulations.

“Providence Public Schools are committed to providing a supportive and welcoming educational environment for all our students, regardless of their immigration status,” Laura Hart, director of communications for the Providence Public Schools, said in an emailed statement.

“Federal law states that undocumented children have the same rights to public education as students who are US citizens,” Hart wrote. “It also states that we cannot require students to reveal their status. As such, we rely on community partners to provide supports specific to immigration issues.”

In Cranston, Mark Schieldrop, a spokesman for the city, told Motif that ICE receives notification when someone who is here illegally is arrested by Cranston Police; however, Cranston schools operate independently and are not controlled by the city. He directed questions about school policy to the public school district.

In February 2017, The Providence Journal reported that school officials in some RI towns, such as Central Falls, vowed to protect students, and held Know Your Rights sessions aimed at helping the RI immigrant community prepare for interactions with immigration enforcement agencies or discrimination.

A Rhode Island Department of Education document dated September 12, 2017, states that schools should have a plan or procedure in place for school personnel. The document notes that student information is protected by the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and repeatedly notes that districts are locally responsible for policies and actions related to immigration enforcement agencies and the students for which the districts are responsible.

“If ICE officials request to speak with students, schools need to ensure that there is a warrant, court order, exigent circumstances or consent provided by a parent or proxy consistent with a school district policy,” the document states.

At press time, Cranston public school representatives could not be reached for comment.