NYCLU Survey: NY School Districts Illegally Denying Education to Immigrant Children

October 30, 2014 —  The New York Civil Liberties Union today released findings from a review of approximately 20 percent of New York State school districts revealing that the majority of those districts may be unlawfully barring the enrollment of immigrant students.

The survey comes on the heels of a statewide study by the NYCLU in 2010 which found that one-in-five school districts were putting up illegal barriers to immigrant youth. After recent allegations that a Long Island school district was preventing dozens of Latino children from receiving an education, the NYCLU reviewed the policies of the 139 offending school districts and found many are still out of compliance with the 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.

“All children have an equal right to a public school education, regardless of their immigration status,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “The NYCLU has presented data to the State Education Department for years showing that many districts across the state are discriminating against immigrant children and preventing them from enrolling in schools. It’s shocking that the SED has not acted sooner or more decisively to guarantee the right of all New York children to an education.”

The Supreme Court in 1982 ruled that states violate the 14th Amendment when they deny undocumented children the same educational opportunity that they provide to citizens. New York State Education Law further guarantees a free public education to youth older than 5 and younger than 21 who have not earned a high school diploma. Though state schools may inquire about a student’s age and address, they break the law if they ask about a student or parent’s immigration status, require birth certificates as proof of a child’s age or otherwise impose requirements that would chill a student’s willingness to engage with the school.

In New York State, many immigrant children are unable to attend school despite efforts by their relatives and parents to enroll them because of onerous and likely unlawful immigration barriers. The NYCLU’s findings show that:

  • 73 school districts, including 25 in the New York City metro area with high immigrant populations, require birth certificates for enrollment. Nineteen of those school districts specify they require the “original” birth certificate.
  • 22 school districts, including 13 districts in the New York City metro area, ask for students’ date of entry into the United States at enrollment.
  • 16 school districts require a student’s immigration status for enrollment.
  • 10 school districts require social security cards for enrollment.
  • Six districts ask students whether they are a “migrant worker” at enrollment.
  • Nine school districts ask students whether or not they are U.S. citizens in enrollment.
  • Unnecessarily restrictive proof of residence requirements – which can be an impossible barrier for an immigrant family – was pervasive across all districts.

The NYCLU issued a letter this week to the SED and state attorney general urging the creation of a model universal enrollment form and list of permissible evidentiary documents, a recommendation that the NYCLU first made in 2010 after its report found enrollment barriers in one-in-five of the state’s 694 districts.

Last week, following media reports that more than 30 Latino students in Hempstead had been signing in for attendance a few times each week, only to be told to return home, the state attorney general’s office and the SED announced they would conduct a compliance review of school district enrollment policies for undocumented students to examine whether students are being denied their constitutional right to an education.

“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,” said NYCLU Advocacy Director Johanna Miller. “Requiring proof of a child’s immigration status in order to register for school creates an impermissible barrier to an education. No child should be deprived of an education while we’re waiting for the SED to act.”