Tucked into legislation that would make it tougher for children fleeing violence in Central America to gain asylum in the U.S. is a little-known provision that would open up a special channel for those escaping countries where homeschooling is illegal.
It was put there by lawmakers sympathetic to the homeschooling movement and who want America to be a haven for those fleeing countries where it remains illegal to educate children at the kitchen table.
Asylum is a process set up to help those facing intense oppression get residency in the United States. Some compare the homeschool provision to a 1996 asylum amendment that granted refuge to people fleeing forced sterilizations and abortions in China.
“There are some places in the world like Germany and Sweden where parents are just not allowed to do this,” said Michael Donnelly, an attorney with the Home School Legal Defense Association, which advocated for the provision.
But those who study asylum suggest that the law may actually weaken what has traditionally been a tough asylum standard.
Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration professor at Cornell University Law School, questions whether homeschooling bans rise to the level of persecution or whether they are more about discrimination and could set a more generous precedent, including those the overall legislation is intended to prevent.
“Most courts have defined persecution as being something pretty significant,” he said. “Generally, it’s hard to win asylum and they don’t want any decisions to make it seem easier to get asylum.”
Other critics have questioned the fairness of offering asylum to people seeking freedom to educate their children how they want while at the same time making it tougher for those fleeing drug and gang violence to seek refuge.
“The Republicans have put homeschooling as a priority for asylum in the United States ahead of murder, rape, child abuse,” said Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., one of the most outspoken opponents of the broader legislation.
Supporters offer examples such as the case of Germans Dirk and Petra Wunderlich. The Wunderliches’ children were taken away and put into German foster care until the parents agreed to send them to an actual school. They were charged more than $15,000 for three weeks of foster care.
Two years ago, Jurgen Dudek and his wife, Rosemarie, were sentenced to prison for three months because they were homeschooling their children in Germany, which made schooling compulsory in 1919. Homeschooling was officially banned in 1938.
The couple continues to homeschool four of their eight children in their living room, which has four child-sized desks and shelves full of books. Three of the children are now in college and the youngest is 3 years old.
With the help of a lawyer, the parents avoided prison, but they got a stern warning that they could face more charges and possibly be sent to jail if they continued to homeschool their children. They worry they’ll find another court summons in their mail.
“When you hear the sound of the postman’s car coming, your hair raises on the back of your neck,” Jurgen Dudek said in an interview from Germany. “You just don’t know what will happen.”
The German government’s philosophical basis is that homeschooling creates parallel societies that do not share common and essential German values and skills. The fear is that without public schooling, immigrants would not be able to integrate into German society, and that without full integration, the nation as a whole suffers.
Like the Dudeks, many of the families interested in homeschooling are deeply religious and feel it’s their duty to incorporate Christian teachings into the day-to-day lessons.
Andreas Vogt, a lawyer in Germany who represents more than a dozen homeschooling families, estimates more than 1,000 children are homeschooled in Germany. Some clients have fled to France, England and Austria to continue homeschooling.
“The most important thing for a young human being is to have good parents,” Vogt said. “In Germany, the official opinion of school authorities and of the courts is that you only can become a good social human being if you were a pupil in a school.”
In the U.S., around 2 million students are homeschooled. It’s legal in all 50 states, but states have varying levels of regulation, with some requiring parents to have teaching certificates.
The homeschooling provision is part of a larger piece of legislation, the Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act, sponsored by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, which would make it harder for applicants to prove a “credible fear of persecution” to gain asylum in the country. The homeschooling aspect was added to help families that actually faced deportation after fleeing to the United States. The legislation would give up to 500 grants of asylum each year to families fleeing persecution for homeschooling their children.
“This has to be fixed,” said Chaffetz. “The idea that people are persecuted by their governments for homeschooling is very real.”
A Tennessee judge initially granted asylum to Uwe and Hannelore Romeike and their seven children, but the Obama administration overturned the decision, arguing that Germany’s homeschooling ban was not a form of religious persecution and could not be used as a basis for asylum in the United States.
The Supreme Court declined to hear the family’s case, but the Department of Homeland Security granted “deferred action,” allowing the Romeikes to remain indefinitely.
Meanwhile, all Jürgen Dudek wants is to be able to educate his kids without worrying about fines or prison. He said the passage of the homeschool legislation would send a message to the German government that parents deserve the freedom to educate their children in the way they best see fit.
“School is swallowing up the whole child,” he said. “Just the idea to let people who we don’t know and whose beliefs we don’t share, to let them rule over the children, even in a minor way; that just made us so comfortable.”