Equity & Diversity

Feds to Districts: Policies Must Not Chill Enrollment of Immigrant Students

By Lesli A. Maxwell — May 08, 2014 3 min read
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Officials in the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education on Thursday warned school district officials to cease using policies and practices that “chill” or discourage students from enrolling in school because they, or their parents, may not have legal immigration status.

In a new, four-page guidance that updates a similar one issued three years ago, top civil rights officials in the two federal agencies write that 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.”

“These practices contravene Federal law,” the letter states.

As it did three years ago, the latest guidance spells out the legal obligations of school district officials to provide equal educational opportunities to all children who reside within district boundaries, citing both federal civil rights law and the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plyler v. Doe, which declared that states cannot bar students who are undocumented immigrants from enrolling in public school.

The new guidance includes a fact sheet and a frequently asked questions document that outline the types of documentation that districts may request for proof of residency as well as proof of age when students enroll. Lease agreements, water bills, and phone bills are among the documents that may be requested, but in the case of homeless students, no such proof of residency is required. To prove age, districts may ask for birth certificates, but cannot deny access if students do not provide one or if they provide a foreign birth certificate. Family bibles, medical records, and previous school records could all be used as proof of age, according to the guidance.

It also makes clear that while districts may ask for students’ Social Security numbers, they may not deny them enrollment should students’ parents elect not to provide the number. And districts cannot require parents and guardians to provide their Social Security numbers as a condition for enrollment. Districts that ask for Social Security numbers must disclose to students and parents that providing them is voluntary.

The guidance also suggests that districts may elect to enroll every child who comes to them, and they may ask for documents related to age and residency after the student has already started attending school. It also makes clear that federal law requires districts to provide complete enrollment information in languages that can be understood by parents and guardians who are not proficient in English. All the new documents were published in both English and Spanish.

“This 2014 guidance is a timely reminder that district and school-based personnel can and should do things that make the school environment more welcoming to immigrant families,” said James Ferg-Cadima, the Washington regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF. “These documents are timely, needed, and accessible.”

MALDEF is one of several civil rights and legal aid organizations that receive complaints from immigrant families about practices that make enrollment difficult or impossible. Those tend to spike at the beginning of each new school year and come from all over the country, Ferg-Cadima said.

“Most of our cases are resolved through phone calls or demand letters we send on behalf of families,” he said.

Complaints also end up in the hands of federal civil rights officials who have authority to investigate practices alleged to be discriminating against students and their family members based on national origin.

In recent years, a number of states have passed laws cracking down on undocumented immigrants, though it tends to be more routine local practices that present problems for immigrant families.

Alabama, which passed what was considered to be the toughest anti-immigration law in 2011, saw large numbers of immigrant families with school-aged children withdraw their children from public schooling and leave the state.

Though the law required school officials to ask newly enrolling students for their citizenship status and to report that data to the state, that provision, along with several others in the law, have been permanently blocked by a federal court.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.