NYCLU Analysis: 1 in 5 New York State School Districts Puts Up Illegal Barriers for Immigrant Children

July 23, 2010 —  The New York Civil Liberties Union today released findings that the school registration requirements in at least 20 percent of public school districts across New York State may be unlawfully barring or discouraging the enrollment of immigrant students. The school districts are asking for information that would reveal a parent or child’s immigration status as a prerequisite for school enrollment.

The NYCLU this week wrote the 139 offending school districts to educate them about the law, as well as the New York State Education Department, which has been aware of the situation for at least 10 months but has repeatedly abdicated its responsibility.

“The Supreme Court ruled 28 years ago that all children have an equal right to a public school education, regardless of their immigration status,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “Though some of these school districts undoubtedly seek to exclude immigrant children, many of the offending districts are surely unaware that their registration requirements are discriminatory. What is truly unfortunate is that, since the NYCLU brought this matter to the attention of the State Education Department nearly a year ago, the SED has turned a blind eye to the situation and refused to provide schools the guidance they need on the law and on the United States Constitution.”

The NYCLU surveyed New York State’s 694 school districts this past school year and discovered that at least 139 are asking, either directly or indirectly, for proof of a parent or child’s immigration status before a student may be enrolled in school.

Some districts have in place glaringly discriminatory practices, such as the Spencerport Central School District near Rochester. In its student registration checklist, it states: “If your child is not a U.S. citizen by birth, please bring your child’s I-94 form [or] Resident Alien Card. If the card is expired it will not be accepted.”

Others, such as the Sweet Home Central School District near Buffalo, ask about a child’s “visa expiration date” and state that “If not a US Citizen, must provide a passport, VISA to verify length of stay.”

Yet others, such as the Oxford Academy and Central Schools, between Binghamton and Syracuse, mandate that children provide their Social Security number when registering. While this may not appear to discriminate, undocumented children are ineligible for Social Security numbers and are therefore unable to register.

NYCLU lawyers started reaching out to the State Education Department as early as September, 2009 about the failure to adequately protect all students’ right to a public education, but the department has consistently failed to respond adequately to the situation. It has not counseled offending school districts to revise their policies, nor did it attempt to reach out to families and children who may have been prevented from going to school based solely on their immigration status.

“Requiring proof of a child’s immigration status in order to register for school creates an impermissible barrier that prevents some children from exercising their right to an education,” said NYCLU Advocacy Director Udi Ofer. “We many never know how many children have been deprived of an education because of SED’s failure to act.”

The Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that states violate the 14th Amendment when they deny undocumented children the same education opportunity that is provided to United States citizens. New York State Education Law further guarantees a free public education to youth older than five and younger than 21 who have not earned a high school diploma. Though schools may inquire about a student’s age and address, they break the law if they inquire about a student or parent’s immigration status.

In its letter to the state Education Department, the NYCLU asked that the department:

  • Issue a formal directive to all school districts regarding appropriate student enrollment procedures and prohibiting the request of documentation/information that would indicate whether a student or his/her parent(s) are lawfully present in the United States. The directive should include clear and concise information on what documentation districts may require to fulfill registration requirements;
  • Mandate that school districts revise their registration forms, including registration forms posted on their websites, so that they comply with the law;
  • Issue a model registration form that districts may use to enroll students; and
  • Monitor school districts’ compliance with the SED directive and federal and state law.