English-Language Learners

Feds to Schools: Immigrant Students Entitled to Free Public Education, Regardless of Status

By Ileana Najarro — June 22, 2023 3 min read
A Muslim girl and a Black boy are sitting beside each other in a tech classroom as they work with their own tablet computers.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The U.S. Departments of Justice and Education are putting public schools on notice that immigrant children and youth are entitled to a free public education, regardless of their immigration status.

The two agencies published fact sheets earlier this month reminding families and educators of the rights immigrant students—specifically migratory children and unaccompanied minors—have when it comes to receiving a public education.

It’s a reminder advocates and researchers say is needed as more immigrant students are expected to enroll in the coming years, and as they continue to face challenges in accessing quality education.

(The pandemic era policy known as Title 42—which made it possible to expel migrants quickly—expired in May, and it’s not yet clear if the policy change at the border will bring an influx of immigrant students to schools.)

“Even though the law has been very clear for decades … we continue to hear about students being turned away from schools, people not understanding how to find out what students’ previous histories are so that they can be appropriately placed in classes,” said Julie Sugarman, senior policy analyst for PreK-12 education at the think tank Migration Policy Institute. “We just continue to get these anecdotes of things that happen to immigrant students.”

Schools’ responsibilities

The fact sheets aim “to help public schools understand their responsibilities to serve unaccompanied children under federal civil rights laws,” according to the agencies. They delineate the specific obligations school districts must meet as seen below.

“It gets school districts’ attention when the federal government says, ‘If you don’t do this, the Department of Justice can come knocking,’” Sugarman said.

Why reminders of the law are needed

The fact sheets provide examples of common scenarios immigrant students often face that discriminate against them and limit their access to a quality education.

Enrollment barriers include:

  • Migratory children living in temporary labor housing that are within a school district’s geographical boundaries, face school proof-of-residency policies that prevent their enrollment.
  • Schools ask new students to provide social security numbers or U.S. birth certificates for enrollment.
  • They are deterred or discouraged from applying for gifted and talented programs because they are English learners, or because they have interrupted formal schooling or incomplete academic records.

Once students are enrolled in schools, other obstacles may include:

  • Failure to conduct English-language proficiency assessments for unaccompanied minors who enroll mid- or late-year since such tests are done at the start of the school year.
  • Denial of language assistance services and special education services which schools are legally obligated to provide, or telling students they need to prioritize one set of instructional services over the other.
  • Incorrect assumptions that migratory families who speak Indigenous languages also speak Spanish because of their country of origin.
  • Reliance on multilingual students to interpret for English learners who are unaccompanied minors in class, rather than providing required instructional support and language assistance from qualified staff.

These violations of students’ rights can sometimes be easy for schools to miss or overlook, said Astou Thiane, director of policy and advocacy at ImmSchools, a national nonprofit based in Texas that works with K-12 schools to support undocumented students and their families.

While Thiane has found that educators have come a long way in remedying these types of barriers, they keep popping up. That’s why formal communications from federal agencies to schools—that are also visible to the public—are necessary and helpful, Thiane said.

That work is especially needed with front office staff who often make the first contacts with immigrant families and are involved in the enrollment process, Sugarman added.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
From Chaos to Clarity: How to Master EdTech Management and Future-Proof Your Evaluation Processes
The road to a thriving educational technology environment is paved with planning, collaboration, and effective evaluation.
Content provided by Instructure
Special Education Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table - Special Education: Proven Interventions for Academic Success
Special education should be a launchpad, not a label. Join the conversation on how schools can better support ALL students.
Special Education K-12 Essentials Forum Innovative Approaches to Special Education
Join this free virtual event to explore innovations in the evolving landscape of special education.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

English-Language Learners Quiz WIDA's Test for English Learners: Try Sample Questions
The WIDA ACCESS test is an assessment used by close to 40 states to determine if students must remain in English learner programs.
1 min read
Laptop Checklist 052024 1251676666 [Converted] 01
English-Language Learners What All Teachers Should Know About WIDA's Test for English Learners
Researchers and specialists say general education teachers play a role in helping English learners' language development.
7 min read
ELL Girl Laptop 052024 176654360
Marilyn Nieves/Getty
English-Language Learners Opinion When Teaching English Learners, Embrace These 3 Critical Mindsets
English learners will have more success if teachers adjust their thinking. Here's how.
4 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
English-Language Learners ‘A Unique Challenge’: What English Learners With Disabilities Need
From language barriers to bilingual education program lockouts, dual-identified students face unique challenges researchers say.
7 min read
Student trying to navigate a landscape of a different language
Nicole Xu for Education Week