Schools can’t bar kids based on immigration status

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Arne Duncan

Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks with a preschool student on Friday, March 21, 2014, at J. Ormond Wilson Elementary School in Washington. He announced on Thursday new guidance to remind public schools that they must provide an education to all students regardless of immigration status. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

The Obama administration issued guidance Thursday to remind public school districts that children cannot be denied an education based on their or their parents’ immigration status.

The guidance states that school districts should be flexible in accepting documents from parents to prove a child’s age and to show that a child lives within a school’s attendance area. It also provides specific examples of the types of documents that many schools have accepted to prove a child’s age or residence.

A letter with information about the new guidance was sent out to states and school districts, along with a fact sheet and a Q and A document.

“We want to be sure every school leader understands the legal requirements under the Constitution and federal laws, and it is our hope that this update will address some of the misperceptions out there,” Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan said on a conference call with reporters Thursday. “The message here is clear: let all children who live in your district enroll in your public schools.”

SEE ALSO: Ray Suarez’s Latino Americans: Education is real issue for Hispanics

The new guidance comes after the Department of Justice and the Department of Education issued similar guidance in 2011 to help schools understand their responsibilities under the Supreme Court’s decision in Plyler v. Doe. That decision made it clear that public schools must provide all children equal access to an education regardless of immigration status.

But Duncan said that despite the 2011 guidance, his department’s Office of Civil Rights has received 17 complaints of school leaders acting “inappropriately.” Those complaints came from all over the country, including Colorado, North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, New Mexico, and Louisiana.

“In several instances, school leaders are inappropriately requiring information that may be barring or discouraging students from ever enrolling in school,” Duncan said. “That behavior is unacceptable and it must change.”

He said some students were being asked to provide a social security number. Others were asked for information on their country of birth, the date they first entered the United States and their visa status.

Parents were asked similar questions. Some parents were also asked to provide a state-issued ID and driver’s license, which many parents cannot obtain because of their immigration status.

SEE ALSO: Educational institutions failing Latino students

Eric Holder: Schools ‘have an obligation’ to enroll all students

Attorney General Eric Holder echoed Duncan’s remarks, saying that despite the 2011 guidance, problems persist.

“We have continued to hear troubling reports of actions being taken by school districts around the country that have a chilling effect on school enrollment, raising barriers for undocumented children and children from immigrant families who seek to receive the public education to which they are entitled,” he said on the conference call with reporters.

Holder added that 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,”

“The Justice Department will do everything it can to make sure schools meet this obligation,” he said. “We will vigilantly enforce the law to ensure the schoolhouse door remains open to all.”

The National Immigration Law Center applauded the new guidance. The group says it has long advocated for stronger guidance to help school administrators protect children’s access to education.

“Today’s updated guidance provides much needed and long overdue clarity to ensure that all children, no matter where they (or their parents) were born, are able to enroll in and attend public schools,” Marielena Hincapié, executive director of NILC, said in a statement.

Hincapié also encouraged the Departments of Education and Justice to “engage in all necessary outreach to prevent school districts from continuing troubling practices of adopting policies that serve only to close schoolhouse doors to children of immigrants.”

SEE ALSO: What happens to children when parents are detained or deported?

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