State DOE Prompts Schools Not to Ask New Students About Legal Status

John Mooney | November 1, 2010 | Education
Advocates say the state can do more to ensure schools don't block undocumented from registering

Under federal and state law, public schools are prohibited from requiring students to prove citizenship or legal status when registering for enrollment. Even inquiring about it at all with demands for Social Security numbers or other documentation is forbidden.

But advocates say schools are still not necessarily getting the message. They point to incidents like these to make their case:

One student’s family, intending to register for school, was asked for a Social Security number, according to the complaint they filed. Another was prevented from registering at all when the mother showed an expired visa, again according to their complaint.

Official Guidance

Acting state Education Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks this month sent guidance to all school superintendents reminding them of the law, and telling them to remind their principals and other administrators as well.

“School districts are prohibited from requiring students to disclose or document their immigration status, making inquiries of students or parents that may expose their undocumented status or engaging in any practices that “chill” or hinder the right of access to public schools,” read the October 25 memo from Hendricks.

The memo went out the same week that Hendricks released similar guidance for schools to provide services and access to homeless students.

Still, advocates are pressing the state to do more, saying the memo is a start but the state must back it up with enforcement. The Statewide Parent Advocacy Network said it received the two foregoing complaints this year. Its co-director, Diana Autin , said that she hears of cases where school staff threaten to call government agencies on immigrant families, and even sometimes do.

“This especially happens for immigrant parents who have children with disabilities,” Autin said in an email.

“These parents (with the complaints) were lucky in that they found their way to an agency that knew where to go for help,” she continued. “There are undoubtedly other immigrant parents out there to whom this happens, who don’t know where to turn.”

Increased Monitoring

Autin was among a group of more than two dozen advocates who signed a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, imploring Hendricks to step up monitoring of districts and also distribute to all schools a one-page guide to the law.

The ACLU in 2008 covertly contacted more than 500 school districts and asked how they register students. It found more than 180 improperly asked for documentation. Deborah Jacobs, the ACLU executive director, said she plans to conduct a similar survey again.

“It’s an ongoing problem,” she said. “The department sending a letters is a good step but definitely not enough to address it. More enforcement is needed, as is education of school employees who are the front line in registering students.”