Feds to School Districts: No, You Can't Deny Undocumented Kids an Education -- And Don't Bully Them, Either

Memo to legislators: son niños. They're children.

​The Department of Justice mailed out a gentle reminder to school districts across the country over the weekend advising that undocumented students are, in fact, entitled to attend primary and secondary schools in America without getting hassled.


It comes in the wake of published news reports alleging that school districts across the country are intimidating undocumented parents from enrolling their kids in public schools by asking for immigration papers, which federal law forbids.

The letter can also be taken as a warning to several state Legislatures, including Arizona's, about the legality of their ongoing efforts to keep undocumented youth out of school.

According to a July New York Times report, a New York Civil Liberties Union study found that 139 districts in New York state were "routinely requiring a child's immigration papers as a prerequisite to enrollment, or asking parents for information that only lawful immigrants can provide."

That story also notes similar efforts in Maryland, New Jersey, and Nebraska. The Dallas Morning News has reported on similar efforts in Texas.

No students were denied entry into New York escuelas for lack of immigration status, according to the Times, but simply asking for those papers can have a chilling effect on parents of undocumented kids who might keep their kids out of school for fear of exposure.

The Department of Justice's letter was signed by officials in the Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Education's General Counsel. It specifically directs schools on what they can ask of enrolled students and gives guidelines on how.

Schools are allowed to ask for documents, such as utility bills or lease agreements, to establish that a student lives in a district. They are not allowed to ask for immigration papers for the same purpose.

They're also allowed to request birth certificates for proof of a student's age, but they cannot deny a student admission for providing a foreign certificate. Nor are they allowed to suggest that they need an American birth certificate.

The biggest point in the letter revolves around Social Security numbers. The letter reminds schools that they can ask for a social if they want to but that they must inform parents it is optional, and parents can decline to give a social for whatever reason.

More importantly, the letter adds, schools that ask for socials must ask it of everybody.

"In all instances of information collection and review, it is essential that any request be uniformly applied to all students and not applied in a selective manner to specific groups of students," the letter reads.

Arizona politicians attempted to pass a bill last year requiring the state Department of Education to determine the number of undocumented students in public schools and provide a "cost" to taxpayers of educating them. The Morning News reported last November on a proposed bill in Texas requiring students to show proof of citizenship so that the government could determine how many students in their schools have papers. An Oklahoma committee passed a similar bill in February 2010.

Bills like these don't deny undocumented students the right to attend school -- but they're designed to frighten and mislead undocumented parents into not enrolling their students into school, the same result.

Undocumented children are allowed to attend public schools per the Supreme Court's ruling in Plyler v. Doe, a 1982 case. The DOJ cites its key determination in its letter:

Denying "innocent children" access to a public education, the Court explained, "imposes a lifetime hardship on a discrete class of children not accountable for their disabling status. . . . By denying these children a basic education, we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions, and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our Nation."

While the DOJ letter does not explicitly mention the threat of legal action against school districts engaging in anti-immigrant practices, they seem to be taking the possibility seriously.

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Gregory Pratt
Contact: Gregory Pratt