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SPLC offers guide on immigrant students’ right to a public education

The Southern Poverty Law Center today released a guide designed to help families and advocates of immigrant children defend a student’s right to a public education.

The guide – Protecting Immigrant Students’ Rights to a Public Education – explains the legal framework and rights of immigrant children and families to enroll and participate fully in public schools. The guide offers resources, including a sample letter, to aid advocates in communicating with the school if a child is prevented from enrolling.

The publication comes the same week as the 39th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe, a landmark ruling that held that all children living in the U.S., regardless of their immigration status, have a legal right to attend a public school. The right is protected under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

“All children living in the United States have a right to attend a public school, regardless of their race, national origin or preferred language,” said Jaclyn Cole, SPLC outreach paralegal. “Yet, despite a clear-cut ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, immigrant children across the country, and particularly in the South, face barriers that prevent them from enrolling or remaining in school.

“School leaders can take action now, during the summer months, to review their enrollment requirements and processes to ensure that when students return in the fall, no child or their family is excluded or prevented from enrolling and receiving the services for which they are eligible.”

The guide explains that, in some cases, schools have denied enrollment to immigrant children or imposed illegal documentation requirements such as a Social Security card as a condition for enrollment. Such requirements discourage families from enrolling their children in school and effectively block their access to a public education, violating federal law in the process.

In April 2013, more than a year after a federal court blocked a provision of Alabama’s anti-immigrant law, HB 56, that required schools to determine the immigration status of students, the SPLC found that many school districts in the state failed to comply with state and federal laws when requesting Social Security numbers for enrollment. The state superintendent later issued a memo directing school districts to enroll all students and accept a wide variety of documents as proof of a child’s age and residency in the state, as required by law. The SPLC led a similar effort in New Orleans in 2014.

Still, some schools and districts today continue enrollment practices that block access to immigrant students.

The guide also describes additional protections for students and their caretakers under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

To access the guide and additional resources for families and advocates in Spanish, Vietnamese, Haitian Creole and English, please visit: