Many of the 21 Long Island school districts that ask questions about citizenship or green card status when students register will rethink that policy, after complaints by the New York Civil Liberties Union led to planned state guidelines to prevent discrimination against undocumented immigrants.
According to the civil liberties union, some 20 percent of the public school districts in New York State ask inappropriate questions on registration forms - social security numbers, legal alien numbers, or citizenship status, queries the group says could prevent some undocumented immigrants from signing up their kids for school. State and federal law require that all youngsters have access to free education, regardless of their legal status.
"We know that when districts gather information and ask questions of parents and guardians, those questions might inadvertently create a chilling effect that could prompt those parents or guardians to resist enrolling their children in their district of residence," state Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman said in a statement announcing that guidelines will be forthcoming.
He would not specify what the guidelines would require, but said they would clarify districts' "legal obligations regarding the registration of students, particularly with regard to immigration status."
Policies under review
Officials at 12 Long Island districts singled out by the group said they would review their forms with district lawyers or school boards, and would likely or definitely remove the questions deemed objectionable.
"We certainly don't want to, in any way, have people feel like they're discriminated against," said Superintendent James H. Hunderfund of Malverne, a district cited for asking for a green card and Social Security number.
Similarly, Amityville Superintendent John R. Williams said, "Our plans are to remove that requirement [for students' Social Security number] from our registration section."
Amagansett and Lindenhurst revised their registration forms earlier this year, removing the request for a Social Security number, before receiving notice from the civil liberties union, officials in those districts said.
The issue arose when the civil liberties union surveyed 694 districts in New York State, and found that 139 of them asked questions about legal status. Udi Ofer, the group's attorney and advocacy director, said the group pointed out the problem to state education officials 10 months ago.
A chilling effect on registration
While officials at districts on Long Island said they have not turned away any student based on legal status, Ofer said many undocumented immigrants statewide may fail to register their children out of fear. "What we believe has been happening [is] once families begin to fill out these registration packets and start getting questions about whether they have a green card or not, or have to provide a Social Security number, those families are never going back to that school district because they don't have that document," he said.
Ofer said his group has not received such complaints from anyone on Long Island.
But Luis Valenzuela, executive director of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance, said "it has been very difficult to get families to come forward" because they fear their undocumented status would be revealed.
Island Trees Superintendent Charles Murphy took issue with the notion that parents would fear registering their children. Calling Island Trees a welcoming district, he said the question was for "informational purposes," perhaps for English as a Second Language classes and was not used to exclude students. Murphy said he would consult the school board for direction.
Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, in Washington, D.C., said schools may be asking for things like a Social Security number for "proof that you are who you say you are. It's reasonable for them to ask for something." But she said there should be a state policy on what documents can be requested. "The most important thing to me is they not treat [immigrant] students differently" from students who are citizens, she said.
Long Island districts say they don't. "We've never denied a student, nor could I imagine us denying a student based on the fact they don't have a Social Security number," said Mark Nocero, superintendent of Eastport-South Manor schools. He said he had not received a notice from the civil liberties union about the district asking for a Social Security card, and wouldn't take any action until he had.