Federal officials announced Thursday they are cracking down on school districts that prevent children of undocumented immigrants from enrolling in public schools because of their immigration status.
Pledging to keep the schoolhouse door “open to all,” U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters in a conference call that districts around the country are violating the law by preventing undocumented students from enrolling.
The districts’ main tool for doing so is asking for documentation such as Social Security numbers, state-issued driver’s licenses, visas or other papers undocumented immigrants lack, they said.
“Public school districts have an obligation to enroll students regardless of immigration status and without discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin,” Holder said. “We will vigilantly enforce the law to ensure the schoolhouse door remains open to all.”
Three years ago, the departments issued guidelines to school districts nationwide explaining their obligation to enroll undocumented students under the Supreme Court’s landmark 1982 decision Plyler v. Doe, as well as federal civil rights laws. Districts have a right to establish that a student resides in the district, but cannot bar them from enrolling because of immigration status.
“Yet we have continued to hear troubling reports of actions being taken by school districts around the country that have a chilling effect on student enrollment, raising barriers for undocumented children from immigrant families who seek to receive the public education to which they are entitled,” Holder said.
“Such actions and policies not only harm innocent children, they also markedly weaken our nation . . . by leaving young people unprepared and ill-equipped to succeed and contribute to what is, in many cases, the only home they have ever known,” Holder said.
New guidelines released Thursday include examples of proper and improper enrollment practices, and replace instructions issued in 2011. A state may allow parents to verify their residency by showing state-issued identification card or driver’s license but they cannot require that. A telephone or utility bill, a lease or mortgage document, or a letter from an employer can also be acceptable documentation, the Justice Department said.
Officials at the Office of Civil Rights said they have investigated 17 complaints in school districts in Washington, D.C., Colorado, North Carolina, Ohio, Louisiana, Michigan and New Mexico. In Georgia, the Education Department evaluated the enrollment practices of 200 school districts and helped many resolve them, officials said.
“Sadly, too many schools and school districts are still denying rights to immigrant children,” Duncan said. “The message here is simple, and it is crystal clear: Let all children who live in your district enroll in your public schools.”
There are an estimated 1.1 million school-age children from families of undocumented immigrants in the United States, federal officials said.
Local immigration advocates hailed Thursday’s action.
“It’s a very welcome announcement,” said Luis Valenzuela, head of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance. “Clearly, there are still problems. They are more widespread than we would think.”
The situation on Long Island has improved in recent years, Valenzuela said, partly because advocates have helped immigrants fight for their right to enroll their children in public schools. But there are still barriers: Many undocumented immigrants are reluctant to pursue their cases after contacting advocates because of their immigration status and fears they will be deported, he said.
Valenzuela said he would like to see the Justice Department do more outreach into local communities to pursue such cases because of the immigrants’ fears.
But Mark Krikorian of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, a group that favors stricter immigration limits and enforcement, said he doubts many schools districts are barring undocumented immigrants from enrolling.
“I find it hard to believe,” Krikorian said. “I think it is more of a political stunt on the Justice Department’s part . . . to appear responsive to immigrant concerns.”
He said the root of the problem — if it exists — is stopping illegal immigration in the first place, and that state and local governments should be the ones to decide to how to deal with students here illegally in terms of enrolling in schools.
That said, if it happened in his own local area, Krikorian said he would probably favor allowing undocumented students to attend public schools.
“I wouldn’t like it, but I’d kind of hold my nose and be in favor of it,” he said. “They’re kids and it’s not really their fault. If they are here anyway we might as well make sure they know how to speak English and stay out of trouble.”
Daniel Altschuler, Long Island coordinator for Make the Road New York, a Brentwood-based immigrant advocacy group, applauded the government’s crackdown.
“It’s absolutely vital that the federal government take steps to ensure that all students have access to education, irrespective of immigration status,” Altschuler said. “We know around the country we’ve seen practices that may have a chilling effect . . . and make undocumented immigrants afraid to send their children to public schools.”
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