Following NYCLU Advocacy, DOJ/DOE Affirm Immigrant Children’s Right to Attend U.S. Public Schools

May 7, 2011 —  The U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education have issued guidance to all the nation’s school districts clarifying that schools must not inquire about a child’s immigration status at enrollment. The guidance follows a New York Civil Liberties Union analysis last year that found that at least 20 percent of public school districts across New York State were unlawfully barring or discouraging the enrollment of immigrant students. Civil rights group across the nation conducted similar advocacy on this issue.

“School districts have no business inquiring about a parent’s or child’s immigration status at enrollment,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “We’re gratified that the Justice Department has clarified any ambiguities and made clear that school districts have an obligation to educate all children regardless of citizenship or immigration status.”

The guidance by DOJ and DOE, issued May 6, represents the clearest affirmation of the right of immigrant children to receive an education in the country’s public schools since 1982 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe that states violate the 14th Amendment when they deny immigrant children the same education opportunity that is provided to U.S. citizens.

During the 2009-2010 school year, the NYCLU surveyed New York’s 694 school districts and discovered that at least 139 districts were asking, either directly or indirectly, for proof of a parent or child’s immigration status before a student could be enrolled in school.

In response to the survey, the New York State Education Department issued guidance to all of the state’s school districts making clear that they may not ask for information that would reveal a parent or child’s immigration status as a prerequisite for school enrollment.

“Close to 30 years ago the Supreme Court ruled that immigrant children have the same right to access a public school education as children who are U.S. citizens,” said NYCLU Advocacy Director Udi Ofer. “Today, the Obama administration brought our nation closer than ever to fulfilling this promise. The
DOJ’s and DOE’s guidance will help ensure that all the county’s children – regardless of their immigration status – have access to a public education.”

“All children in the United States are entitled to a basic public elementary and secondary education regardless of their race, color, national origin, citizenship, or immigration status or the status of their parents/guardians,” the DOJ’s guidance states. “School districts that either prohibit or discourage children from enrolling in schools because they or their parents/guardians are not U.S. citizens or are undocumented may be in violation of Federal law.”