Equity & Diversity Commentary

Immigrant Children Have a Right to a Good Education

By Eric T. Schneiderman — March 11, 2016 3 min read
Undocumented Central American immigrants board a bus after being released from a family detention center in San Antonio last summer. This year, the federal government launched a program to provide immigrant families in a few major cities, including New York, with opportunities to retain lawyers and facilitate schooling for their children.

The New York State Constitution requires a good education for all children.

Unfortunately, the promise of equal access to education is being broken for many immigrant children living in New York as some of our school bureaucracies fail to provide them with the same education as children born in the United States.

In 2014, many of the thousands of unaccompanied minors who had arrived from Central and South America were settling with their extended families (or being resettled by the federal government) throughout New York state. My office soon began receiving reports that some of these children were encountering unprecedented barriers to enrolling in and attending their local schools.

So, for the past two years, we have been investigating dozens of school districts across New York for potentially discriminating against immigrant children by denying them equal access to an elementary and secondary education.

We have found that many districts have been stopping immigrant children from entering school or shunting them off to non-degree-bearing programs—despite the fact that state law grants everyone under the age of 21 the right to attend public school, regardless of immigration status or national origin. Many of these non-degree programs do not even offer students an opportunity to obtain a GED credential, let alone a high school diploma.

Providing all children with a quality education is the foundation of the American dream."

Some districts were actively trying to prevent them from becoming part of the school community. For example, enrollment for these children was often unreasonably and repeatedly delayed, in direct contradiction of state regulations.

Discrimination against immigrant students is unacceptable and, under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Plyler v. Doe, unconstitutional. Thankfully, since our investigation began, we have made significant progress in breaking down these barriers and getting thousands of students off the streets and into the classroom.

One year ago, my office reached a settlement with 20 school districts throughout the state to ensure they stopped asking about students’ citizenship and immigration status in their enrollment materials, which can frighten immigrant children into abandoning their efforts to get admitted.

In March 2015, we secured a settlement with the 7,500-student Hempstead Union Free School District, which had been delaying the enrollment of these students through a variety of methods, including overly restrictive policies on proof of immunization, age, and residency—in violation of applicable laws and regulations—as well as regularly telling students or their guardians that there was simply no room at district schools for them. As part of the settlement, the district agreed to retain an ombudsman to provide new internal oversight over its enrollment policies.

So far, the results are encouraging. By the start of this school year, Hempstead had provided additional tutoring or extracurricular help to all the affected students who asked for such help. The district also hired a full-time monitor to oversee the enrollment process and trained every staff member involved in the enrollment process on proper procedures and rules.

In late February, my office announced a similar settlement with the Westbury Union Free School District in Nassau County to prevent the diversion of immigrant students into non-degree-bearing alternative education programs.

Our efforts have been assisted by our partners in the state government. In December 2014, the state’s education board issued new regulations that gave school districts more clarity and uniformity in how they must enroll and process students. Before the board issued these emergency regulations, many districts were putting unnecessary roadblocks—including strict requirements for guardianship and residency documentation—in the way of immigrant students who wanted to register.

But we still have more work to do. My office continues to pursue our lawsuit against the 10,000-student Utica City School District for engaging in practices similar to those we found in Westbury. And we will continue to take action against other districts engaging in these unlawful practices.

School districts cannot place arbitrary impediments and barriers in the way of immigrants and refugees who are struggling to achieve a better life for themselves and their families. Providing all children with a quality education is the foundation of the American dream. Every child taken off the streets and placed into a classroom raises up the whole community and makes our state stronger and more just.

A Spanish translation of this essay also appears in print and online at El Diario.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2016 edition of Education Week as Keeping Schoolhouse Doors Open for Immigrant Children


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