Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday that all schools must enroll illegal immigrants as students, citing “troubling reports” that some districts are discriminating against the children of undocumented parents.
“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,” Mr. Holder said in a statement released Thursday by the Justice Department. He said the department will do “everything it can” to make sure schools meet this obligation.
Mr. Holder was joined by Education Secretary Arne Duncan in issuing the new guidance to school administrators, telling them to be more flexible in accepting some documents from illegal parents and not to require others that may prove a child’s age and residence. The guidance is an update to earlier guidelines the Justice Department issued to school systems in 2011.
Although schools have a right to establish a child’s residency in a district, they don’t need to require the parents to have state-issued driver’s licenses or Social Security cards to prove they are in the country legally, the new guidelines state. Parents can produce a utility bill or a lease as a substitute.
The guidance is based on a 1982 Supreme Court decision that says children of illegal immigrants have a right to a public education. In Plyler v. Doe, the court struck down a Texas statute that denied funding for education to the children of illegal immigrants and a school district’s attempt to charge undocumented persons an annual $1,000 tuition fee for each illegal immigrant student.
Some states and school boards have challenged the ruling, most notably California in 1994, when voters approved a referendum to deny all state-funded benefits — including education — to illegals. The courts later struck down the referendum.
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In 1996, Congress tried to pass immigration legislation that would have allowed states to deny public education benefits to certain illegal aliens or to charge them tuition. But it was withdrawn after President Bill Clinton threatened to veto it.
School boards then began to take action against illegal immigrants by requiring Social Security numbers or driver’s licenses. The also employed practices such as proposing separate schools for immigrant students and requiring paperwork designed to identify immigration status.
Today, schools in New York, New Jersey and Arizona, among others, routinely inquire into immigration status as part of the enrollment process, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
In Alabama, public schools must determine the immigration status of children and parents during enrollment, and then can report the undocumented persons to immigration authorities.
The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights has received 17 complaints related to enrollment policies since it first issued guidance in 2011, Mr. Duncan said. Complaints were from Ohio, Colorado, Louisiana, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C.,among others.
That’s in addition to a number of undisclosed complaints filed in the Justice Department. In Georgia, the Justice Department evaluated the enrollment policies of more than 200 school districts and helped them resolve issues, authorities 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 and children from immigrant families who seek to receive the public education to which they are entitled,” Mr. Holder said.
The ACLU applauded the new guidelines.
“Today’s updated guidance reaffirms the longstanding principle, established by the Supreme Court over 30 years ago, that all children living in our country have a right to equal access to public education,” ACLU Legislative Counsel Joanne Lin said in an e-mail. “School districts must adhere to this guidance, and meet their constitutional obligations to ensure that no child is locked outside the schoolhouse door.”