Obama administration to public schools: accept immigrant children

Daniela Martinez, 2nd from L, reads the college essay of undocumented high school student Seila, the only name she wishes to use, at Washington Lee High School on Jan. 23, 2014, in Arlington, VA.
Daniela Martinez, 2nd from L, reads the college essay of undocumented high school student Seila, the only name she wishes to use, at Washington Lee High School on Jan. 23, 2014, in Arlington, VA.

In a bold new directive, the Obama administration warned school districts that efforts to bar the children of immigrants from enrolling in public schools "contravene Federal law," and that all children have a right to a public school education.

The departments of justice and education offered updated guidance to school districts on Thursday as to what types of information may be used to deny a student’s enrollment in a public school.

It was the second time in three years that the DOJ and DOE spelled out how school districts can and cannot handle the enrollment of students, particularly those whose citizenship or immigration status may be in question. The updated guidance included a letter to states and school districts which emphasized the need for flexibility in accepting forms required for school entrance, including those that show a child’s age or place of residence.

“We have worked with scores of school districts to ensure that they are fulfilling their obligations under both constitutional and federal law,” Attorney General Eric Holder said on Thursday, with the announcement of the new guidance. “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 and children from immigrant families who seek to receive the public education to which they are entitled.”

In a letter sent to education departments, the administration wrote that practices that deny immigrant children access to public education “contravene Federal law.”

The manner in which states have handled students whose immigration status is in questions varies widely. But in many states with harsher policies toward undocumented immigrants, including many in the South, many parents have kept their children from attending schools out of fear that their status would be revealed or worse, that they’d face law enforcement action.

In Alabama, for instance, after the legislature passed a tough new law which among other things banned renting homes to undocumented immigrants, forced schools to check students’ legal status and even made it a crime to give unauthorized immigrates a ride, many parents took students out of school. Parts of the Alabama law have been blocked by the courts, but not before sending a shock through entire communities. Panic shook families as a legal noose began to tighten in places where many families with mixed immigration status worked and lived in plain sight.

Since 2011 the Education Department said it has received 17 complaints from six states -- Colorado, North Carolina, Ohio, Louisiana, Michigan and New Mexico -- as well as the District of Columbia claiming that students were prevented from enrolling in schools based on discriminatory practices based on citizenship status.

In the case of North Carolina, the Southern Poverty Law Center recently filed a complaint with the Justice department, claiming that two school districts there had kept immigrant children from enrolling in public schools.

The revived guidance states that districts are barred from requesting information with the intention of using it to deny access to schools based on race, color or national origin. It says that schools can't bar a student for not having a birth certificate or records indicating they were born in a foreign country. And schools can't keep students out simply because a parent or guardian chooses not to provide a Social Security number.

Holder on Thursday said that such actions “not only harm innocent children” but weakens the country.

“We will vigilantly enforce the law to ensure the schoolhouse door remains open to all,” Holder said, later referring to poignancy of the revised guidance coming just days from the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education which outlawed discrimination in education.