The American Civil Liberties Union has stepped up its long-running campaign in New Jersey to protect undocumented students from being blocked from enrolling in school, filing its first lawsuit against a school district.
The ACLU’s New Jersey office filed suit in state Superior Court against Morris County’s Butler school district on Friday, claiming it wrongfully required families to provide photo identification to enroll, in violation of state and federal guidelines.
The suit, ACLU-NJ’s first against a school system, argues that Butler’s policy goes against state and federal regulations that prohibit schools from demanding a student disclose his or her immigration status.
Announcing the action in a press release yesterday, the ACLU-NJ contends that Butler’s requirement for a photo identification for a child to enroll in kindergarten next fall prevented nearly a dozen children from registering.
The roots of this case reach back to the mid-2000s, when the ACLU started following up on complaints that public schools in New Jersey were improperly requiring new students to provide state-sanctioned identification before they could enroll.
In 2008, the ACLU’s New Jersey office conducted an undercover survey and found that more than 130 districts — a fifth of all those in the state — required this sort of documentation.
In response, the state began issuing annual reminders about the regulations prohibiting such requirements. And the ACLU called district by district to urge each one to fix its policies.
And by and large — according to the ACLU — most districts agreed.
Butler was an exception, it said, when the ACLU called attention to the policy recently and the district responded that the requirement was proper.
The ACLU moved quickly, filing for an expedited hearing that is slated to be heard today in the Superior Court’s chancery division in Morristown.
“This is happening right now,” said Alexander Shalom, attorney for the ACLU. “There is a lot of anxiety among families as to what is going to be happening with their five-year-olds next year.”
The district’s lawyer responded in an email last night that Butler had only asked for a photo identification to help validate a family’s residence. He contended such a requirement was permitted by law.
“Immigration status is not our concern,” Jeffrey Merlino, the school board attorney, wrote in the email.
“We asked that the person registering the student bring proof of residency and a photo ID . . . for purposes of establishing the identity of the person filling out the forms,” he wrote. “It is a way to validate the answers to the residency questions. The ACLU thinks we overstepped.”
Merlino also said that the district had agreed to amend the guidelines and allow any form of identification, but the ACLU rejected the offer.
“It says something when an entity issues a press release and threatens attorneys fees prior to a court date,” Merlino added.
The ACLU’s Shalom said at he did not think this or other actions were necessarily aimed at excluding immigrant students, but the consequences remained.
He pointed out that undocumented families don’t have ready access to state and county identification, and the state regulations expressly say that actions are prohibited that may chill a family’s
willingness to enroll.
‘The impact is clear,” he said. “You talk to these families, and they’re terrified. Terrified for themselves, and terrified for their children.”
Shalom said he hoped the Butler case would send a louder signal to districts to follow the law. And he did not rule out that the ACLU would again do an undercover survey of districts to see if they are complying.
“I don’t think this is as nearly as pervasive as it used to be,” Shalom said of the documentation requirements. “But it’s absolutely still a problem.”