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ACLU ensures illegal immigrants can go to school

District sued for requiring parents to show photo ID to enroll students
The ACLU says more than 130 New Jersey school districts may be violating federal law.
The ACLU says more than 130 New Jersey school districts may be violating federal law.

Some 136 of 590 New Jersey districts require parents to provide government-issued identification or a social security number before enrolling a child in school—a barrier for illegal immigrant families and a violation of federal law, according to an April survey from the state’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter.

In March, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against Butler Public Schools in New Jersey for requiring parents to show government-issued photo identification to enroll students. Before appearing in court, the district agreed to remove this policy. Superintendent Mario Cardinale did not return calls for comment.

“People can’t be productive members of society if they’re denied access to education,” says Alexander Shalom, senior staff attorney at the New Jersey ACLU. “If we claim to be a land of equal opportunity, we need to give people access to the basic tools required to succeed.”

The Butler suit prompted the ACLU to send letters to the other 136 New Jersey districts it found to have policies that may stop undocumented parents from enrolling their children. It called on administrators to change the policies within a month or risk litigation, Shalom said.

At the time of this writing, some 40 districts had responded to the ACLU. Most administrators said they did not realize they were not complying with the law and are removing the identification requirement from their policies, Shalom says.

Federal law

Children of illegal immigrants have the same right to attend public schools as U.S. citizens, according to the 1982 Supreme Court ruling Plyler vs. Doe. Districts can require proof of local residency, but may not deny admission because a student is in the country illegally. The law also prohibits forcing families to disclose their immigration status and requiring students to have social security numbers.

The Obama administration issued a letter in May warning school districts not to deny enrollment to undocumented students.

There were 1 million illegal immigrants under age 18 in the United States in 2010, as well as 4.5 million U.S.-born children whose parents were undocumented, according to the Pew Research Center.

Nationally, it is difficult to document district-level violations, says Michael Tan, staff attorney at the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. “By and large, school officials follow Plyler, simply because educators aren’t in the business to be immigration agents, but to provide education to everyone in the community,” Tan says. “The problems we see in the enrollment procedure in schools with ID requirements that end up excluding immigrant families are mostly inadvertent.”

Parents trying to prove residency should be given many options, such as providing a lease document or a utility bill, Tan says. Because parents fear being turned over to the police, districts should not ask for students’ demographic details until after enrollment. Administrators also should make it clear the information won’t be turned over to law enforcement, he adds.

The New Jersey Department of Education sends e-mails each year to remind all superintendents and charter school leaders of the Plyler requirements, says agency spokesperson Mike Yaples. “School officials need to ensure that enrollment policies are structured in such a way that all families have the ability to enroll students, including immigrant families,” he says.