WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 17:  Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump's pick to be the next Secretary of Education, testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill  January 17, 2017 in Washington, DC. DeVos is known for her advocacy of school choice and education voucher programs and is a long-time leader of the Republican Party in Michigan.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Betsy DeVos' controversial statements (2018)
02:07 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos faced backlash from civil rights groups after she told members of Congress on Tuesday that she believed schools can decide whether or not to report undocumented students to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officials.

The groups say DeVos’s comments would violate the Constitution, pointing to the 1982 Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe, which found that K-12 schools can’t deny students access to public education based on their immigration status.

DeVos said on Tuesday that she believed the choice was up to schools and local communities whether principals and teachers had the responsibility to call ICE if they learned a student or a student’s family members were undocumented.

“Sir, I think that’s a school decision, it’s a local community decision,” DeVos said during a House Committee on Education and the Workforce Hearing, as Rep. Adriano Espaillat, a New York Democrat, pressed her for her views on the issue. “Again, I refer to the fact that we have laws and we are also compassionate. I urge this body to do its job and address and clarify where there is confusion around this.”

But civil rights groups said that would be unconstitutional.

“Let’s be clear: Any school that reports a child to ICE would violate the Constitution,” Lorella Praeli, director of immigration policy and campaigns at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. “The Supreme Court has made clear that every child in America has a right to a basic education, regardless of immigration status. Secretary DeVos is once again wrong.”

Thomas A. Saenz, the president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund said that DeVos’s testimony “stems either from an astounding ignorance of the law or from an insupportable unwillingness to accurately advise local school districts.”

“Either of these indicates a severe dereliction of duty,” he added.

ICE has clearly stated that schools are considered “sensitive locations,” like churches and places of worship, where they do not conduct immigration enforcement.

Asked for comment, Elizabeth Hill, the Education Department press secretary told CNN that “the Secretary has said repeatedly, we are a nation of laws and we are also a nation of compassion.”

“The Secretary’s position remains that schools must comply with Plyler and all other applicable law and regulation,” she said.

DeVos acknowledged during her testimony Tuesday that the Supreme Court had ruled that the government must provide money to educate undocumented students in K-12 schools throughout the country.

“There are undocumented children in K-12 education today that we support and give education to on a daily basis,” she said.

CNN’s Tal Kopan contributed reporting.