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Rights of Immigrant Children to Public Education

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Q: Some friends of mine recently moved to a new school district, and they have been having trouble enrolling their children in the local public elementary school. Both the parents and the children are legal permanent residents. Can the school stop the children from enrolling in school?

A: No. Under Federal law, all children in the United States are entitled to public elementary and secondary education regardless of their race, color, national origin, citizenship, immigration status or the status of their parents or guardians. So a school has no legal basis to prevent legal resident children from attending. This entitlement also extends to cases where children or their parents are undocumented.

There is some confusion about the kinds of information that schools can collect from pupils and their parents without violating federal law. The Civil Rights Division in the US Department of Justice has published a fact sheet with some clarification of this issue. These are the main points:

(1) Schools are allowed to require proof of residency in the school district. Examples of evidence of residency could be a lease or utility bills. However, a school district may not inquire about the citizenship or immigration status of pupils or their parents.

(2) Schools may require a copy of a child’s birth certificate only in order to establish that the child meets the age requirements for a particular grade in school, and they may not prevent a child from enrolling merely because he or she has documentation showing birth outside the United States.

(3) A school may request a child’s Social Security number in order to use it as a student identification number, but it must inform the child and the parents that providing the number is voluntary, and it may not prevent the child from enrolling if the parents choose not to provide the number. [Note: Using Social Security numbers rather than randomly generated numbers for identification purposes in schools, on driver’s licenses, etc. may be unwise in view of the possibility of identity theft.]

(4) Data on race and ethnicity: In order to meet various statistical reporting obligations under federal and state law, schools may request, but may not require, that parents provide such data.

Anyone who believes that a school district is violating federal law with respect to the immigration status of children or their parents may contact one of the following agencies:

Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Educational Opportunities Section

(877) 292-3804 (toll-free)

education@usdoj.gov

Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights

(800) 421-3481 (toll-free)

ocr@ed.gov

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