By Julia Preston
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Education Secretary Arne Duncan issued a strong warning on Thursday to public school districts nationwide not to deny enrollment to immigrant students in the country illegally.
The Justice and Education Departments jointly issued an update of guidelines they published three years ago, reminding districts that they “may be in violation of federal law” if they turn students away because the children or their parents do not have immigration papers. The guidelines clarify what documents schools can and cannot require to prove that students live in their districts.
“Sadly, too many schools and districts are still denying rights to undocumented children,” Duncan said on a conference call with reporters. “That behavior is unacceptable, and it must change.” He added, “Our goal must be to educate, not to intimidate.”
The officials said they had received 17 complaints in the past three years that led to legal action in school districts. There have also been frequent reports that schools were discouraging enrollment by demanding visas and Social Security numbers from students and driver’s licenses from parents, all documents that illegal immigrants generally would not have.
Obama administration officials said that their timing was not related to the standoff over immigration on Capitol Hill, and that they had been prompted by planning underway for enrollment for the next school year. But the announcement was another in a string of recent moves by the administration to make life easier for immigrants, including those here illegally, while broader legislation is stalled in the House of Representatives.
The fast-growing numbers of children of immigrant families in public schools have created points of contention in many states, with some taxpayers questioning whether children of undocumented immigrants are entitled to public education.
Holder said the policy guidelines were based primarily on a 1982 Supreme Court decision, Plyler V. Doe, which found that schools cannot deny access to public education through the 12th grade on the basis of a student’s immigration status. That mandate and civil rights laws also require schools to make sure students are not rejected because of their parents’ legal status, Holder said.
Schools can request documents proving that families are residents of their district, including phone or utility bills and leases. But in new language, the guidelines clarify that schools cannot require proof of legal immigration status or state-issued identity documents, including driver’s licenses. Schools cannot require students to present original birth certificates to prove their age, or deny them if they offer foreign ones, and schools cannot require students or parents to provide Social Security numbers.
During the last two years, federal officials examined more than 200 school districts in Georgia to make sure their enrollment practices met the requirements, said Jocelyn Samuels, acting assistant attorney general for civil rights. The Justice Department reached formal settlements with Henry County, Georgia, as well as Palm Beach County, Florida, to change their practices.
In March, the Butler school district in Morris County, New Jersey, responding to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, agreed to drop a policy requiring parents to present state-issued identity documents that they could obtain only if they had legal immigration status.
A district in Fresno abandoned a policy that would have required parents to give fingerprints or Social Security numbers to enter school grounds, after local immigrant advocates challenged it.
In 2011, Alabama passed a law that required schools to collect information about the immigration status of students and parents. Although that statute was blocked by federal courts and never took effect, it caused many immigrant families to hold children out of public schools.
Alabama has since issued instructions to every school district clarifying that the districts cannot ban or discourage children from enrolling because they do not have Social Security numbers or birth certificates, or because their parents do not have Alabama driver’s licenses.