N.J. Schools Sued Over Policies Preventing Immigrant Student Enrollment

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The ACLU of New Jersey is suing a dozen school districts in the state, including three in Camden County, saying they have discriminatory policies that prevent immigrant children from potentially getting an education.

The 12 school districts require parents to provide a New Jersey driver’s license or other state-issued forms of identification that undocumented immigrants likely would not possess, in violation of both the state and federal constitutions, the ACLU says in its suit filed Thursday. Under current laws and policies, schools may only request proof of a child’s age, residence, and immunization record when registering them for classes, the ACLU says.

“New Jersey’s state Constitution calls for free public education, and that applies to every single child – no exceptions,” ACLU-NJ staff attorney Elyla Huertas said in a statement. “In a state where one in five residents is foreign-born, at a time when our president has made the exclusion of immigrants a key part of his policy agenda, it’s more important than ever for every school district in New Jersey to meet its obligations, both to New Jersey’s families and to the Constitution.”

In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas law that had denied undocumented immigrant children an education in the public school system. After a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of Mexican school-age children who lived in Texas, the high court ruled that the law had violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. In a landmark ruling, the high court held that “education has a fundamental role in maintaining the fabric of our society” and that it “provides the basic tools by which individuals might lead economically productive lives to the benefit of us all.”

The lawsuits were filed in state Superior Court in the individual counties where the districts are located, one month after thousands demonstrated in Washington to protest the Trump administration’s immigration policies and separation of undocumented children from their parents at the Mexican border. The protest was organized by the American Civil Liberties Union and several other civil rights organizations.

Three of the 12 school districts that the New Jersey affiliate is suing are in Camden County: Bellmawr, Sterling Regional High School, and Winslow. Dan Long, an attorney who represents the Bellmawr and Winslow Township school districts, said they are “currently reviewing the lawsuits and have no further comment at this time.”

Officials with the Sterling Regional High School district in Somerdale did not respond to calls for comment.

Sterling and Bellmawr were among the districts previously cited by ACLU-NJ for violations in 2014.

The lawsuits filed Thursday ask the court to order the 12 school districts to rescind the restrictive enrollment requirements and to pay legal fees.

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The ACLU said it selected the 12 districts because they had the most restrictive policies among the more than 500 school districts across the state that were surveyed.

Over the last decade, the ACLU-NJ has conducted audits of school districts to determine whether they had restrictive policies, and in the last four years it sued 13 districts that the ACLU said were in violation of the law. All of the cases settled after the districts agreed to change their policies, the ACLU said.

The policies “add up to a quiet, daily injustice that allows discrimination to metastasize and that tells families, incorrectly and unconstitutionally, that they can’t access the fundamental rights they’re entitled to,” said ACLU-NJ executive director Amol Sinha. “Public schools exist to educate all of a community’s children.”

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