Immigrant Children Face Barriers to Enrollment in Long Island Schools

0
2339

On Aug. 12, 2011, Mercedes Mercedes of Baldwin tried to enroll her then 15-year-old nephew Fernando in Baldwin High School. Her brother in the Dominican Republic gave her paperwork granting her custodial power to register Fernando. But the school wouldn’t accept him.

“I received a letter from the school district that they would present the paperwork to the district’s attorney,” Mercedes said through a translator. “After a week I received another letter saying they would not accept him because, even with temporary guardianship, they claimed it didn’t establish he had a definite residence [in the district].”

Mercedes’ brother submitted another power of attorney giving her full custody. In October 2011, she enlisted the help of the Hispanic Brotherhood of Rockville Centre, a nonprofit agency that provides a wide range of resettlement services. Margarita Grasing, the agency’s executive director, said they had to go to family court to get Mercedes legal custody. With their help, on Jan. 4, 2012, Fernando was able to start at Baldwin High School, where he is a rising senior on the honor roll. But he lost an entire semester due to disputed paperwork so will not graduate on time.

A spokesperson for the district who didn’t want to be quoted said this was a straight custodial issue not related to immigration. But some advocacy groups say there’s more to it.

While schools do legitimately need to worry about whether or not a student is a legal resident of their district, they say, there are numerous cases of disputed residency paperwork barring an immigrant child from enrolling in school. These include asking for unnecessary proof of address and questioning the validity of paperwork that is produced, said Jason Starr, Nassau County chapter director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU).

“What we see in districts where we have problems is the person who serves the role of registering children starts to ask questions off the cuff, like, ‘When did you move here?’ ‘Do you plan on staying there?’ They may start to ask about living and familial relationships that are considered different than the rest of the community,” Starr said. “The parent may be asked to produce documents, which may be challenged, like a lease between relatives that doesn’t look like the standard commercial lease. And then the school district may make the determination the child doesn’t meet the residency requirement.”

Linda Milch, executive director of the Long Island Advocacy Center (LIAC) in New Hyde Park and Hauppauge, said that her agency fields complaints from immigrants “in the school districts that have large populations of non-traditional families. Sometimes the school personnel don’t speak the language and don’t want to bother. It’s the district’s responsibility to provide interpreters, but they don’t necessarily tell you that.”

Clear Laws
Federal law clearly states what schools are supposed to do about enrolling immigrant children. In 2011 the United States Department of Justice and the U.S. and State Departments of Education (DOE) sent guidelines to all school districts stating that they can’t deny entry into school based on immigration status so long as the child is a resident.

“Students across New York have the right to be enrolled in our state’s public schools regardless of their immigration status, their race or their national origin,” said Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. “Burdensome and overly restrictive barriers to registration can deny kids the opportunity to register for school.”

The DOE is clear that proof of age and residency are the only two requirements to enrolling a child. Their guidelines state that “a school should not deny student enrollment for failure of the parent or guardian to provide a single document proving residency when other forms of documentation have been provided to the school.” These in

On Aug. 12, 2011, Mercedes Mercedes of Baldwin tried to enroll her then 15-year-old nephew Fernando in Baldwin High School. Her brother in the Dominican Republic gave her paperwork granting her custodial power to register Fernando. But the school wouldn’t accept him.

“I received a letter from the school district that they would present the paperwork to the district’s attorney,” Mercedes said through a translator. “After a week I received another letter saying they would not accept him because, even with temporary guardianship, they claimed it didn’t establish he had a definite residence [in the district].”

Mercedes’ brother submitted another power of attorney giving her full custody. In October 2011, she enlisted the help of the Hispanic Brotherhood of Rockville Centre, a nonprofit agency that provides a wide range of resettlement services. Margarita Grasing, the agency’s executive director, said they had to go to family court to get Mercedes legal custody. With their help, on Jan. 4, 2012, Fernando was able to start at Baldwin High School, where he is a rising senior on the honor roll. But he lost an entire semester due to disputed paperwork so will not graduate on time.

A spokesperson for the district who didn’t want to be quoted said this was a straight custodial issue not related to immigration. But some advocacy groups say there’s more to it.

While schools do legitimately need to worry about whether or not a student is a legal resident of their district, they say, there are numerous cases of disputed residency paperwork barring an immigrant child from enrolling in school. These include asking for unnecessary proof of address and questioning the validity of paperwork that is produced, said Jason Starr, Nassau County chapter director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU).

“What we see in districts where we have problems is the person who serves the role of registering children starts to ask questions off the cuff, like, ‘When did you move here?’ ‘Do you plan on staying there?’ They may start to ask about living and familial relationships that are considered different than the rest of the community,” Starr said. “The parent may be asked to produce documents, which may be challenged, like a lease between relatives that doesn’t look like the standard commercial lease. And then the school district may make the determination the child doesn’t meet the residency requirement.”

Linda Milch, executive director of the Long Island Advocacy Center (LIAC) in New Hyde Park and Hauppauge, said that her agency fields complaints from immigrants “in the school districts that have large populations of non-traditional families. Sometimes the school personnel don’t speak the language and don’t want to bother. It’s the district’s responsibility to provide interpreters, but they don’t necessarily tell you that.”

Clear Laws
Federal law clearly states what schools are supposed to do about enrolling immigrant children. In 2011 the United States Department of Justice and the U.S. and State Departments of Education (DOE) sent guidelines to all school districts stating that they can’t deny entry into school based on immigration status so long as the child is a resident.

“Students across New York have the right to be enrolled in our state’s public schools regardless of their immigration status, their race or their national origin,” said Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. “Burdensome and overly restrictive barriers to registration can deny kids the opportunity to register for school.”

The DOE is clear that proof of age and residency are the only two requirements to enrolling a child. Their guidelines state that “a school should not deny student enrollment for failure of the parent or guardian to provide a single document proving residency when other forms of documentation have been provided to the school.” These include, but are not limited to, notarized eyewitness accounts, a rental agreement, utility bills, a library card, dog license, or a driver’s license.

Even so, parents are often told to bring documents they don’t have like a cell phone bill, said Matteo Flores, program director of Hempstead Community Action Program of the Economic Opportunity Commission of Nassau County.

Challenged Paperwork
While school districts are not supposed to report legal status, “sometimes they do, so families are worried if they are challenged on paperwork, they might be deported,” said Flores. “We hope that the leaders in these communities understand it’s their responsibility to educate a child regardless of their status. School personnel don’t think people will say anything [about illegal questions]. And sometimes immigrants are intimidated because parents who have not been living in this country may not know their rights.”

Starr said the legal term for this is “sleeping on their rights. They don’t know the ‘no’ at the school district level is not the final ‘no.’ They are generally not inclined to challenge authority in case immigration issues come up.”

Starr said he doesn’t believe challenges to residency occur because of a lack of information at the school level. “I think the guidance on this has been very clear and has been around long enough that it should have made its way to the district level,” he said.

School districts do have policies and procedures personnel are supposed to follow, and they do make adjustments to them. For instance, Lynbrook Union Free School District was listed by the NYCLU in 2010 as one of 139 school districts in the state that were found to be putting up illegal barriers for immigrant children (9 in Nassau and 12 in Suffolk). Melissa Burak, Ed.D., superintendent of Lynbrook schools, said that the district is constantly reviewing and revising district procedure to ensure ease of enrollment for students.

“District officials are educated on the evolving demographics of the student body and local and federal immigration legislation and students are serviced equally and fully,” she said via email. “For example, several years ago the district utilized registration packets that requested social security numbers, among a multitude of other informational points. Those packets have since been changed and no longer request social security numbers as not to create any misinterpreted barriers for immigrant children.”

Stepped-Up Advocacy
The Attorney General’s office is currently surveying the registration practices of districts across the state to ensure compliance with the law. And local advocacy agencies are stepping up their education to community groups about their rights and actions they can take to protect them, particularly as they anticipate potential issues regarding the unaccompanied minors who have recently entered the United States from Central America.

Milch said agencies like LIAC exist both to let families know what the laws are and to give them self-advocacy techniques. “For instance, we tell parents to request information in writing, ask to see the school policy in writing and ask to speak to the supervisor,” she said. “When guardianship is questioned, the affidavits that guardians need to fill out are on the state department website. They’re not a secret.”

All the advocates mentioned here said that parents need to know that if a student’s residency requirement is determined to be negative, the DOE states that notice and reason for refusal to enroll a child has to be provided in writing within two business days. Further, the parent or guardian has the right to appeal to the Commissioner of Education within 30 days.

Flores advised that families registering children “not be afraid to ask for help. Reach out to people who are here to help them, the agencies in their community. We’re all on the same page.”


Warning: A non-numeric value encountered in /home/longisl2/public_html/wp-content/themes/Newspaper/includes/wp_booster/td_block.php on line 326

LEAVE A REPLY