Federal News in Brief

Letter Reminds U.S. Schools of Obligations to Immigrants

By Mark Walsh — May 17, 2011 1 min read

The Obama administration issued a letter this month 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 May 6 letter.

It 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 that 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.

Along with its accompanying documents, the letter suggests 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 that schools may require proof that a child lives within district boundaries, but that schools may not ask about a child’s immigration status to establish residency. Schools may also ask for birth certificates to establish a child’s age, but may not bar enrollment because of a foreign birth certificate. They may ask for children’s Social Security numbers as student identifiers, but should inform parents that disclosure is voluntary and may not deny enrollment if parents refuses.

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,” the letter states.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 18, 2011 edition of Education Week as Letter Reminds U.S. Schools of Obligations to Immigrants

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