Immigration: US warns schools against bias

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Thursday that troubling reports continue of school districts raising barriers to enrollment for children brought into the U.S. illegally.

The Justice Department and Education Department issued new guidance reminding schools and districts they have a legal obligation to enroll every student regardless of the student’s immigration status. The guidance says schools should be flexible in deciding which documents they will accept to prove a student’s age or residency.

It also reminds them not to ask about a student’s immigration status or require documents such as a driver’s license, if that would prevent a student from enrolling because of a parent’s immigration status.

The Education Department said it has received 17 complaints since 2011 from states including Colorado, North Carolina, Ohio, Louisiana, Michigan, New Mexico and the District of Columbia.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that in some instances, school leaders have inappropriately required information such as a child’s visa status or date of entry into the United States.

Justice Department officials said they also have taken action, sometimes collaboratively with the Education Department and sometimes working separately. The Justice Department has entered into settlement agreements with school districts in states such as Georgia, Florida, and Virginia. And it said that after it contacted officials in Alabama, the state education department sent guidance to districts spelling out that they may not bar or discourage students from enrollment because they lack a Social Security number or birth certificate or because their parents don’t have an Alabama driver’s license.

In a settlement with the Henry County, Georgia, school district, the district agreed to ensure that a parent’s decision not to provide a child’s Social Security number will not keep the child from enrolling. And in one with the district in Palm Beach County, Florida, the district agreed to provide translation help at time of enrollment and to not deny enrollment to homeless students lacking documentation.

Officials from the two departments said they have found that states and districts are willing to work with the federal government on the issue.

“It’s a tribute to educators around the country that they recognize how important it is for kids to be able to attend school and are willing to take the steps necessary to ensure they aren’t even inadvertently chilling students’ willingness or families’ willingness to attend them,” said Jocelyn Samuels, acting assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Justice Department.

Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters his department “will do everything it can to make sure schools meet this obligation.”

Children brought into the U.S. illegally are guaranteed the right to a K-12 education under the 1982 Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe.

Noelle M. Ellerson, associate executive director for policy and advocacy at AASA: The School Superintendents Association, said in an email that the association appreciates the additional clarification.

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Follow Kimberly Hefling on Twitter at http://twitter.com/khefling

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