After 16-year-old Juan made the journey from Honduras to the United States, he tried to enroll at a school in Texas. But the principal — concerned that Juan wouldn’t be able to pass state standardized tests, which would reflect badly on the school’s averages — initially wouldn’t let him. Although Juan was ultimately able to attend school, he received little to no guidance to help him navigate his courses in English. He eventually dropped out.
Juan isn’t the only immigrant kid who has had trouble attending school. Texas school officials also barred an undocumented 14-year-old girl who wanted to live with her 18-year-old sister rather than the sponsors the government placed her with when she arrived in the United States, saying her sister couldn’t be a caretaker because she was also enrolled in school.
In other instances, some Texas schools declined to enroll children because parents weren’t able to present the necessary residency documents on the day that they attempted to enroll, even though families are legally allowed a 30-day grace period to submit the required documentation while their children attend school. In several instances, school officials told family members who weren’t proficient in English that they didn’t have enrollment documents translated into Spanish, even when those Spanish-language forms did exist in the district.
And even after immigrants in Texas were able to enroll in schools, some were placed in alternative programs meant for students who had prior involvement in violent behavior and gang affiliation. Many families reported that they weren’t given a choice about whether their kids would be enrolled in these alternative schools.
These are just some examples that illustrate how difficult it can be for undocumented children to access education in the country, according to a joint year-long research project by the Georgetown Law Human Rights Institute Fact-Finding Project and the Women’s Refugee Commission.
Education is compulsory for all children in the United States, so undocumented children have the legal right to enroll in school. And under federal law, schools cannot discriminate against children based on their immigration status. Nonetheless, the report found evidence that schools in some communities have barred immigrant children from enrolling or “meaningfully participating” in school by creating these hurdles, whether intentional or unintentional.
“U.S. law is clear on this point — no child in the United States should be excluded from public education,” Mikaela Harris, a Georgetown law student and co-author of the study, said, according to the Associated Press. “That doesn’t always play out in practice.”
For their report, the authors conducted a “fact-finding mission” focused in two states: Texas, which has a long history of immigration from Central America and Mexico; and North Carolina, which has a more recently arrived immigration population. The authors also looked into Florida and New York, two states where legal or state action have been taken “to address the prevention of enrollment by schools and school districts,” the report stated.
The report authors conducted a total of 43 interviews, including nine with families, 11 with school officials, four with government officials, and 19 with service providers.
There are an estimated 775,000 undocumented immigrants below the age of 18, many of whom face substantial obstacles to school enrollment. Those obstacles have been compounded by many immigrants’ fear of attending school after the Obama administration authorized a series of large-scale immigration raids to detain recent border crossers, like Latin American children who came to the country after 2014 and have since been ordered deported by immigration courts.
There’s been some previous evidence of this issue. In a 2014 letter, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder chided school districts for discouraging or denying undocumented immigrants or those with undocumented parents from school enrollment. But even after the letter was released, a New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) survey found that at least 86 school districts in New York state that discouraged enrollment.
“We remain vigilant about our responsibility to protect the civil rights of all students, including immigrant students, undocumented students and unaccompanied immigrant students,” Education Department spokeswoman Dorie Nolt said in response to the report’s findings, according to the ABC News. “We have provided a number of resources to communities in order to do so.”
The new report recommends that states and districts evaluate their enrollment procedures to ensure residency requirements don’t discriminate against “undocumented families who may be unable to produce traditional residency documents,” and instead allow guardians to provide alternative residency documents, like pay stubs or membership forms from social service or religious organizations.