Government To Public Schools: You Can’t Keep Undocumented Immigrants Out Of School

Activist at the April 5th rally in front of the White House, holds a sign that reads, “We want education, not rejection.” CREDIT: THINKPROGRESS/ ESTHER Y. LEE
Activist at the April 5th rally in front of the White House, holds a sign that reads, “We want education, not rejection.” CREDIT: THINKPROGRESS/ ESTHER Y. LEE

School districts may not use immigration status to deny enrollment, the Justice and Education Departments reminded schools in a set of updated guidelines released Thursday. In a letter to schools, Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder said that they had “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.”

The guidelines come in response to a number of reports that schools are denying undocumented immigrants entrance on questionable grounds. Undocumented parents living in Butler, New Jersey were unable to enroll their kindergarten-age children in school because the Butler Public School District had a policy requiring parents to provide state- or county-issued photo identification, a document that requires a social security number and valid immigration status, leading the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to file a lawsuit in March. The ACLU also found that 138 New Jersey school districts asked for documents that indicated immigration status.

Two undocumented children in two separate North Carolina school districts were denied enrollment because officials told them that at the age of 17, they were “too old” even though students under the age of 21 are entitled to a public education in North Carolina. One of the students was finally allowed to attend a high school after the person administrating his English as a Second Language exam helped him submit an enrollment application.

Holder said in the press release, “Public school districts have an obligation to enroll students regardless of immigration status and without discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin … We will vigilantly enforce the law to ensure the schoolhouse door remains open to all.”


Secretary Arne Duncan added, “The message here is clear: let all children who live in your district enroll in your public schools.”

The guidelines do not change existing laws as established by the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe, which ensured that even undocumented children are guaranteed equal access to a public education in the United States. After Arizona passed the anti-immigration SB 1070 law which included limiting public education access to individuals who could prove their immigration status, other states and localities passed laws to require proof of legal status for public services, including public education.

In the latest clarification of a set of guidelines issued in 2011, Ducan and Holder again reiterated on Thursday that school districts should exercise “flexibility in accepting documents from parents to prove a child’s age and to show that a child resides within a school’s attendance area.”

The guidelines emphasize that school officials can require parents to show proof of living within the boundaries of the school district, documents that indicate “that a student falls within the school district’s minimum and maximum age requirements,” a voluntary request for a student’s social security number, and for parents to provide their child’s race or ethnicity.

However, school districts may not require a parent or their children to prove their citizenship status or require documents like state-issued driver’s licenses, foreign birth certificates, and social security numbers. They also cannot bar children from enrolling if parents choose not to provide race or ethnicity.