Federal Agencies Remind Public Schools All Children Have Right To Public Education Regardless Of Immigration Status

May 6, 2011 12:00 am

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Public Schools Must Provide Equal Access To Education, Says ACLU

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WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and U.S. Department of Education (DOE) today issued important guidance reminding school districts nationwide of their obligation under federal law to provide equal educational opportunities to all children residing in their districts, regardless of their race, color, national origin, citizenship or immigration status, or the immigration status of their parents and guardians. The guidance responded to discriminatory enrollment practices, documented in part by the American Civil Liberties Union, that unnecessarily and unlawfully inquire, directly or indirectly, into the immigration status of students and their families and foster the fear that the attempt to enroll in public school may bring students and their families to the attention of the immigration authorities. The guidance instructed school districts to cease all enrollment practices that may chill, discourage or exclude students from school based on immigration status. The guidance did not establish any new policy but simply reinforced existing law established by the Supreme Court’s 1982 decision in Plyler v. Doe that a state may not deny access to a basic public education to any child residing in the state, regardless of immigration status.

The guidance made clear that a school district may not:
• ask about a child’s citizenship or immigration status to establish residency within the district; or
• deny a homeless child, including an undocumented homeless child, enrollment because she or he cannot provide the required documents to establish residency.

The guidance further specified that a school district may not prevent a child from enrolling in school because:
• a child has a foreign birth certificate; or
• a child or parent chooses not to provide the child’s social security number; or
• a child or parent chooses not to provide the child's race or ethnicity.

The guidance also instructed school districts to assess their current policies to determine whether they have the effect of discouraging the enrollment of undocumented students and eliminate any possible chilling effect on enrollment.

The following can be attributed to Joanne Lin, ACLU legislative counsel:

“Today’s guidance reaffirms the longstanding principle established nearly 30 years ago in Plyler v. Doe that the schoolhouse door is open to all children in the U.S. As the guidance states, citizenship and immigration status are irrelevant to a child’s eligibility for and fundamental right to a basic education. The ACLU applauds the Department of Education and Department of Justice for proactively addressing this issue, and urges school districts nationwide to avoid adopting any unlawful enrollment procedure that may create a chilling effect on student enrollment on the basis of race, color, national origin, citizenship or immigration status.”

The letter from the DOJ and DOE to public school districts is available at:

A question and answer sheet from the DOJ and DOE for school districts and parents on today’s letter is available at:

A fact sheet from the DOJ and DOE on access to education is available at:

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