On October 30, 2017, a national, Washington-based civil rights group, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, issued a reminder to state attorneys general that all students, regardless of immigration status, have the constitutional right to enroll in K-12 public schools.

Initiative seeks to protect the constitutional right of all children in the US to attend public school.

The “Let Us Learn: Schools for Every Child” initiative aims to protect the rights of immigrant students by emphasizing in the federal constitutional principle that all children—regardless of immigration status—are entitled to a K-12 public education.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sent reminders to state attorneys general as part of the new initiative.  The letters urge the attorneys general to enforce their legal responsibilities and provide clear guidance to the educators in their states on their constitutional obligations to protect the rights of all of their students, regardless of their immigration status or that of their parents and guardians.  This guidance is a particularly significant reminder in light of heightened immigration enforcement and threats to dismantle the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Schools cannot deny or discourage students from enrolling based on immigration status. 

In June 1982, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982) establishing that schools cannot constitutionally deny students a public education based on their immigration status.  The Court found that under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, if states provide a free public education to U.S. citizens and lawfully present foreign-born children, they cannot deny such an education to undocumented children without “showing that it furthers some substantial state interest.”  That is, public school districts cannot adopt enrollment policies that deny or discourage children from enrolling because of the student’s or student’s parents’ immigration status.

This ruling means that a public school district cannot: refuse to enroll a student because he or she does not have a birth certificate; bar a student because of a foreign place of birth and should accept foreign birth certificates when confirming age; or require a driver’s license or state-issued identification from a parent.

Plyler has protected equal access to public education for children regardless of immigration status for more than thirty years, but recent immigration policies threaten this right.  As part of the initiative, the Lawyers’ Committee determined that Plyler is not adequately preventing some school districts from attempting to discourage enrollment in recent years.  The letters identified 30 school districts around the country whose policies appear to be out of compliance with the federal law.

The Lawyers’ Committee compiled resources for school enrollment to encourage students and teachers to stay informed of their rights.  It also created online forms for parents and teachers to ask questions about school enrollment and anonymously report districts whose policies seem to violate federal law.

What this means to you:

Public school districts must ensure that their enrollment policies comply with federal law prohibiting public schools from denying education to children based on immigration status.  Now is the opportune time for all districts to review their policies and procedures and make sure that appropriate personnel are adequately trained.