Public school districts that prevent children of immigrants living here illegally from enrolling because of their immigration status are breaking federal law, according to the Obama administration, which released new guidelines Thursday to end the practice.
"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," said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who joined U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a conference call with reporters from across the country to explain the guidelines. "We will vigilantly enforce the law to ensure the schoolhouse door remains open to all."
The guidelines come three years after the federal justice and education departments sent alerts to school districts nationwide reminding them of the 1982 Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe. In that decision, the justices ruled in a 5-4 vote that it was a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment for Texas to deny funds to public schools if they enrolled children not "legally admitted" to the United States.
Despite the alert, Holder said "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 and Duncan both said that districts across the country have violated the 1982 law by requesting documentation like Social Security numbers, state-issued driver's licenses, visas or other official documents.
Districts have a right to establish that students reside in the district, but cannot bar them from enrolling because of their immigration status, officials said.
The latest action is "a very welcome announcement," said Luis Valenzuela, executive director of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance. "Clearly, there are still problems," Valenzuela said. "They are more widespread than we would think."
Long Island school officials in Suffolk and Nassau counties said denying enrollment to students is not a problem locally. In the North Merrick Union Free School District, Superintendent David Feller said all students who reside in the district are free to enroll regardless of their immigration status. "I'm not aware of that being an issue," said Feller, who also serves as the president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents.
It's not been an issue in Suffolk either, said Roberta Gerold, superintendent of schools for the Middle Country Central School District, who also serves as the president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.
Nationwide, there are an estimated 1.1 million school-age children from families of immigrants living in the country illegally, federal officials said.
The guidelines say a state can allow parents to verify their residency by showing a state-issued identification card or driver's license but they cannot require it. 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 examined enrollment practices of 200 districts and helped many resolve them, officials said.