Attorney General Warns Schools Not to Discriminate Against Undocumented Children

Fed warns that all children, regardless of immigration status, are entitled to public schooling.
Fed warns that all children, regardless of immigration status, are entitled to public schooling.

One of the most horrendous abuses employed against immigrants is the denial of an education by some school districts to undocumented kids. This is illegal and unconstitutional, but it has been done many times around the country, including in places on Long Island.

A letter sent last week from Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arnie Duncan warns school districts that they face penalties if they engage in this discrimination. As the joint letter says, “Under Federal law, State and local educational agencies (hereinafter “districts”) are required to provide all children with equal access to public education at the elementary and secondary level.” However, the letter says, “Recently, we have become aware of student enrollment practices that may chill or discourage the participation, or lead to the exclusion, of students based on their or their parents’ or guardians’ actual or perceived citizenship or immigration status. These practices contravene Federal law.”

The joint letter was sent to remind districts of the Federal obligation to provide “equal educational opportunities to all children residing within [the] district.”

The letter points out that the “United States Supreme Court held in the case of Plyler v. Doe that a State may not deny access to a basic public education to any child residing in the State, whether present in the United States legally or otherwise.”

According to the joint letter, in order to “comply with these Federal civil rights laws, as well as the mandates of the Supreme Court, you must ensure that students are not barred from enrolling in public schools at the elementary and secondary level on the basis of their own citizenship or immigration status or that of their parents or guardians.”

The letter from Holder and Duncan warns that while “a district may restrict attendance to district residents, inquiring into students’ citizenship or immigration status, or that of their parents or guardians would not be relevant to establishing residency within the district.”

In the 1990s, school districts in Westbury, Hempstead, and other parts of Long Island were illegally discriminating based on immigration status. It is important to make sure that we never go back to those days again.

You can read a full copy of the joint letter here.

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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