U.S. Reminds Schools of Obligations to Immigrant Students

By Mark Walsh — May 09, 2011 2 min read
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The Obama administration is reminding school administrators nationwide of their obligation under federal law to enroll children regardless of citizenship or immigration status.

“Recently, we have 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,” says the “dear colleague” letter released on May 6.

The letter cites Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin, among other factors, by public schools. It also cites Plyler v. Doe, the 1982 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that held a state may not deny access to a basic public education to any child, whether that child is present in the country legally or not.

The letter is signed by Russlynn Ali, the assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education; Charles P. Rose, the Education Department’s general counsel; and Thomas E. Perez, the assistant attorney general for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Justice.

The letter and accompanying materials suggest that some elementary and secondary schools are discouraging the enrollment of undocumented immigrant children by asking about their immigration status, denying enrollment to those with foreign birth certificates, or denying enrollment to children whose parents decline to provide their Social Security numbers or race and ethnicity information.

The Education and Justice departments stress in a fact sheet and a question-and-answer document that schools may require proof that a child lives within school district boundaries. This may include lease agreements, utility bills, or other documents, but schools may not ask parents about a child’s immigration status to establish residency.

Schools may also ask for birth certificates to establish that a child falls within minimum and maximum age requirements, but they may not bar enrollment because a child has a foreign birth certificate, the guidance says.

Schools may ask for children’s Social Security numbers to be used as student identifiers. But they should inform parents of the purpose and that disclosure of such numbers is voluntary. Schools may not deny enrollment if parents refuse to provide a child’s Social Security number, the documents say.

The “dear colleague” letter says that schools “may wish to review the documents your district requires for school enrollment to ensure that the requested documents do not have a chilling effect on a student’s enrollment in school.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.