WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration moved Thursday to make sure that K-12 schools across the country are not complicating access to public education for students who are undocumented or whose parents are in the country illegally.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1982's Plyler v. Doe that it was unconstitutional to exclude students from a free public education based on immigration status. Despite that ruling, certain state and local policies and laws have effectively discouraged some students from attending school, even though they have that right.
The departments of Justice and Education issued guidance back in 2011, but both have continued to receive reports that enrollment processes in some school districts have made it more difficult for undocumented parents to enroll their children.
The updated guidance issued Thursday emphasizes that public schools must be flexible about the types of documentation they require from parents. According to the guidelines, school administrators may not require a parent to show a state-issued driver's license or provide a child's Social Security number.
The new guidelines do allow school districts to ask for proof that a student lives within the boundaries of a school district, and suggest that schools accept copies of phone or water bills, lease agreements or affidavits for that purpose. School officials are banned from discouraging a child to enroll in school because he or she does not have a birth certificate or was born outside the U.S.
Since 2011 DOJ has reviewed the registration and enrollment requirements of school districts in several states, including Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Texas, Virginia, Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina. School districts contacted by federal officials in the past have cooperated in changing policies to comply with federal law.
"We have continued to hear troubling reports of actions being taken by school districts around the country that have a chilling effect on student enrollment, raising barriers for undocumented children and children from immigrant families who seek to receive the public education to which they are entitled," Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters in a conference call on Thursday.
"Such actions and policies not only harm innocent children," he continued, "they also markedly weaken our nation -- as the court recognized in Plyler -- by leaving young people unprepared and ill-equipped to succeed and contribute to what is, in many cases, the only home they have ever known."
In one of the most egregious examples of such a policy, Alabama in 2011 passed H.B. 56, which required schools to collect data on the immigration status of children who enrolled. That provision, among others, was blocked by a federal judge in 2012, but not before it reportedly led to numerous Latinos and immigrants pulling their children out of school.
Michael Tan, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the problem isn't simply policies like H.B. 56, but also rules implemented by well-meaning school district officials who may not realize how certain requirements make it tough for immigrant parents to enroll their children. Some may not be able to immediately access their children's birth certificates, for example, or do not have a Social Security number for their child.
"There's a range of policies in place that are preventing parents from enrolling their kids, not because school districts mean to exclude people, but just because they haven't taken a hard look at their policies," Tan said. "By and large, we find that school officials aren't interested in engaging in immigration enforcement ... they're there to educate everybody in their community -- that's why they got into the business. It's just that they have these policies that are on the books that people haven't really thought about."
The ACLU of New Jersey sued Butler School District in March over an enrollment policy that required parents to provide a driver's license or government-issued ID. School officials changed the policy before they were set to appear in court.