How New York Schools Are Deterring Immigrants From Enrollment

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

At least 86 school districts in New York are requiring documents that some immigrant children do not have and discouraging enrollment as a result, a New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) survey found Thursday. Some schools are even reportedly turning kids away. An earlier review found that 139 districts were out of compliance with the law in their 2010 survey, but four years on, the majority of those schools still require information or proof of residency that could have a “chilling effect” on immigrants who are too afraid to register because of their immigration status, a move that could be in violation of federal law.

“Today’s survey demonstrates that the State Education Department (SED) has failed to enforce its own guidelines regarding immigrant student enrollment, despite being aware of the problems for years,” the NYCLU press release read in part.


The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that public schools cannot deny undocumented immigrants a public education on account of their legal status. In 2010, the SED chided school districts through a strongly-worded memo recommending that schools do not deny a free public education by asking questions related to immigration status. And a 2014 Department of Education “Dear Colleagues” letter encouraged educational agencies to “provide equal educational opportunities to all children,” including undocumented students or those whose parents are undocumented. The letter stated that school districts may request, but cannot require at enrollment: the student’s social security number and a birth certificate regardless of place of origin. School districts may otherwise request water and phone bills or lease agreements to establish residency.

According to the NYCLU survey, school districts still put up various barriers to education, such as: 73 school districts required birth certificates for enrollment; 22 school districts asked for the date that students entered the country; 16 districts asked for immigration status; 10 districts asked for social security cards; six districts asked whether students were “migrant workers” during enrollment; and nine asked whether students were citizens during enrollment.

Recent complaints from Latino children barred from enrollment in Long Island, New York spurred the state to investigate registration practices for 34 Latino students who were reportedly turned away, sometimes even being told to sign in for attendance, then told to return home for the rest of the day. State Education Commissioner John King sent a letter issuing guidance for schools to consider classifying the children as homeless if parents are unable to supply documents proving residency.

NYCLU Advocacy Director Johanna Miller said, “While the state attorney general’s office and the SED are taking the right steps by promising to undertake a compliance review, the fact of the matter is that the SED has known for years that nearly 20 percent of its districts are preventing immigrant students from enrolling in schools.”