Equity & Diversity

Schools and Undocumented Students? Few ‘Definite Answers’ on Legal Questions

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 28, 2009 1 min read

It’s a given, because of the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe, that undocumented students have a constitutional right to receive a free K-12 education in the United States. Beyond that, the law tends to be murky.

A new guide tries to help districts with handling legal issues concerning such students, but acknowledges that it’s not able to provide many “definite answers.”

The guide, released by the National School Boards Association and National Education Association, is the most comprehensive and yet practical publication I’ve seen yet advising school districts how to deal with everything from registration of undocumented students to requests from federal immigration authorities to interview the children on campus.

For example, the guide poses this question: “Can school districts ask questions about immigration status to determine if a student is a resident of the district?”

“Probably not,” says the guide, which explains that asking such questions could discourage undocumented students from enrolling in a school and be viewed possibly as a violation of Plyler.

The guide answers “probably” to the question of whether undocumented children have the right to participate in extracurricular activities, though no reported lower court cases have addressed that issue directly.

Very sticky is the issue of whether districts must allow federal immigration-enforcement agents to interview students at school. The guide says that in some cases, districts may have to permit the agents on school grounds to interview a student. But it adds an example, which I reported on in Education Week, in which it was deemed that immigration officials improperly questioned such students on campus, and the students won a settlement in the case.

The guide does a good job, it seems to me, in spelling out where courts have ruled on a particular issue and where they have not.

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