Posted on May 8, 2014

Feds: Schools Can’t Shut Out Undocumented Immigrants

Caitlin Emma, Politico, May 8, 2014

The Obama administration delivered an unequivocally clear message–again–on Thursday: All children have a right to enroll in public schools regardless of their citizenship or immigration status.

Three years after clarifying to schools that they cannot turn away children, the Education and Justice Departments issued another set of guidance documents that provide in painstaking detail what schools can and cannot ask for when families want to enroll their children. The agencies also provided examples of acceptable enrollment policies.

For example, schools can violate federal law by requiring Social Security numbers or birth certificates when a student wants to enroll. Schools can instead ask for proof of residency in a school district, which a family can do with an electric bill or copy of a lease.

In a Dear Colleague letter, the agencies say they’ve recently “become aware of student enrollment practices that may chill or discourage the participation, or lead to the exclusion, of students based on their or their parents’ or guardians’ actual or perceived citizenship or immigration status.”

The Department of Homeland Security estimates that there are 1.1 million undocumented children under age 18 living in the U.S.

On a call with reporters, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that the department’s Office for Civil Rights has received 17 complaints related to school enrollment policies since its 2011 guidance on the issue. {snip}

Those are in addition to an undisclosed number of complaints filed with the Justice Department. {snip}

“Public school districts have an obligation to enroll students regardless of immigration status and without discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. “The Justice Department will do everything it can to make sure schools meet this obligation. We will vigilantly enforce the law to ensure the schoolhouse door remains open to all.”

These state and district obligations are the result of the 1982 Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe, which struck down a Texas law that denied education funding for undocumented children. It also struck down the Tyler, Texas, school district’s attempt to charge undocumented families tuition to make up for the lost state funding.

As immigration reform stalls in Congress, states including Alabama and Arizona have passed their own laws to address the issue. Parts of the Alabama law dealing with school admissions have been blocked by courts, and much of Arizona’s law was nullified, too. State policies can’t trump the 32-year-old Supreme Court ruling, but the dueling requirements have clouded the picture for schools.

Jerri Katzerman, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, is less charitable.

“Some of it is ignorance, both feigned and acquired,” Katzerman said. “Often schools will say, ‘We didn’t deny any child.’ But we’ll ask, ‘How many children didn’t go through the process because of fear?’ It doesn’t create an inclusive, welcoming environment.”


The Education and Justice Departments also stress that schools have to “meaningfully communicate material information about enrollment” for families that aren’t proficient in English. Failing to provide interpreters or translated materials is often a problem, Katzerman said.