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New York schools will remove illegal obstacles for immigrant kids

New York State's attorney general said 20 school districts will modify enrollment policies after investigations unearthed a pattern of illegal barriers.
School buses are seen parked behind a locked bus depot fence in the Queens borough of New York Jan. 16, 2013. (Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
School buses are seen parked behind a locked bus depot fence in the Queens borough of New York Jan. 16, 2013.

Schools throughout New York state will now be forced to reform policies after an investigation uncovered illegal enrollment obstacles placed on undocumented children.

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced Thursday that 20 school districts have agreed to modify enrollment policies after investigations unearthed a pattern of illegal enrollment requirements, including schools that made students present Social Security cards. 

“Schoolhouse doors must be open to all students in our diverse state, regardless of their immigration status,” Schneiderman said in a statement Thursday. “More than 30 years after the Supreme Court guaranteed a free public education for undocumented children, we must do everything we can to uphold the law and ensure equal access for all our students.”

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Reports emerged in October that districts spanning four New York counties unlawfully requested proof of citizenship or legal status from families seeking to enroll new students. After broadening the investigation, the attorney general's office found that districts from 14 counties asked for copies of Social Security cards and disclosure of visa or green card status.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that states could not deny basic public education to children based on their legal status. While school districts are allowed to ask for proof of residency to ensure that students were enrolled in the same districts where they live, administrators are barred from asking about the immigration status of children or their parents for enrollment purposes.

The investigation's findings coincided with heightened national scrutiny over the dramatic number of unaccompanied minors who were caught along the U.S. border after fleeing extreme violence in Central America. Since October 2013, more than 6,000 unaccompanied children have been placed with sponsors in New York, representing the third highest concentration in any state in the country.

Unaccompanied minors living in the U.S. are legally allowed to attend public schools while they undergo immigration court proceedings but, as the number of young immigrants from Central America began to rise, so too did the complaints of discrimination in school enrollment.

The Department of Education reminded school districts last May that they are required to enroll all students. In a "Dear Colleague Letter" co-signed by the Department of Justice, DOE officials addressed complaints of discriminatory enrollment practices.

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"We have become aware of student enrollment practices that may chill or discourage the participation, or lead to the exclusion, of students based on their or their parents’ or guardians’ actual or perceived citizenship or immigration status," the letter read. "These practices contravene federal law."

In New York, 14 counties have agreed to modify enrollment materials and institute training sessions on acceptable policies. Those districts include: Amherst, Carthage, Cheektowaga, Cuba Rushford, Dryden, Gates Chili, Greenville, Hilton, Homer, Lyme, Manchester-Shortsville, Penfield, Pittsford, Spencerport, Sullivan West, Vestal, and Williamson Central School Districts; and the Oneida, Port Jervis, and Watertown City School Districts.