The Right of Children to Attend School, Regardless of Immigration Status

At their best, our nation’s public schools provide an equal opportunity for every child of every background to learn, grow and succeed. Now more than ever, teachers and schools need to create an inclusive and welcoming environment for students to fulfill this goal. This is particularly true for immigrant children, given the current political climate and the administration’s attacks on immigrant families. And yet despite the criticism, all children have a legal right to a public K-12 education, regardless of their immigration status. So what exactly does the law say, and what documentation can schools ask for to enroll a student?

 

In Plyer v. Doe, a landmark case decided 35 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that immigrant children have a right to access a K-12 education, and schools cannot deny this right based on a student’s immigration status. The justices clearly understood that education helps to form “the fundamental values necessary to the maintenance of a democratic political system” and that denying education to a group of children would harm not just them, but the whole of our nation. As a result of this case, schools and districts cannot adopt an enrollment policy that has the effect of denying or discouraging the enrollment of immigrant children based on the immigration status of a student or the student’s parents.

 

Instead, while schools and districts are able to require some documentation to verify a student’s age and residence, they should be flexible about what types of documents they will accept so as not to deny or discourage undocumented students from enrolling in public school. Many of the most common issues regarding school enrollment concern the following:

 

  • Driver’s Licenses. Districts may not require proof of a parent’s driver’s license or other state-issued identification to prove residency. If a district asks for such documentation, it must let the parent know that other forms of identification are acceptable, including an apartment lease, utility bill or phone bill.
  • Birth Certificates. Districts may not require proof of a child’s birth certificate or a child’s or parent’s citizenship or immigration status. Districts may ask for birth certificates to verify age, but must accept alternative methods to verify this information, such as a foreign birth certificate, baptismal record or certificate of arrival in the United States. Districts should also note that these documents will only be used to establish the age of a child for enrollment purposes.
  • Social Security Numbers. Districts may collect a child’s SSN only for a legally permissible purpose, such as using it as the child’s internal school identification number. Any district that opts to request a child’s SSN should make it clear that this is voluntary and that choosing not to provide a SSN will not bar a child’s enrollment.
  • Parents with Limited English Proficiency. For parents with limited English proficiency who seek to enroll a child in public school, districts must meaningfully communicate important information about enrollment. This can be accomplished by translating enrollment documents into languages other than English and having a plan for responding to parents’ questions.
  • Extracurricular Activities and Free or Reduced-Price Meal Programs. Schools and districts cannot deny undocumented children access to extracurricular activities or to free and reduced-price meal programs.

To support the rights of all children to attend public school and reform improper enrollment policies, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has launched a new campaign, Let Us Learn: Schools for Every Child. By sharing resources with educators and families as well as contacting districts directly, Let Us Learn seeks to protect the right of all children to access education and correct enrollment policies that run afoul of the law. We welcome you to explore frequently asked questions about immigration status for educators and parents that we posted on Share My Lesson. And visit our website—https://lawyerscommittee.org/letuslearn/—to find additional resources, submit questions about student enrollment, and anonymously report district policies that are not in compliance with the information above.

As a nation, we all benefit when the schoolhouse door is open to all children, regardless of immigration status or other characteristic. Teachers are on the frontlines in ensuring that all children can access an education, all families are welcome in schools, and all schools follow the law on student enrollment. Together, through campaigns like Let Us Learn and the efforts of teachers around the country, we can secure a future in which all children can learn, grow and succeed in a welcoming, excellent school.

Want to learn more? Watch the new webinar featuring the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law on the rights of immigrant students.


Author Bios 

David Grau is the New York University Legal Fellow and Associate Counsel with the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. A recent graduate of NYU School of Law, Grau taught elementary science in Seat Pleasant, Md., prior to attending law school.

Alexis Abraham is a legal intern working on the Educational Opportunities Project with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She is a second-year law student at Antonin Scalia Law School in Arlington, Va., looking to pursue a career in civil rights.