New Rules Aim To Keep School Doors Open For Undocumented Students

The Obama administration is issuing new guidelines to keep states from barring the children of undocumented immigrants from attending public school. The Supreme Court has guaranteed these children free access to a public education, but some states appear to be denying it anyway.

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The Obama administration today reissued guidelines for America's schools. The goal is to keep states from turning away children who cannot prove that they are in the U.S. legally. A 1982 Supreme Court ruling allowed undocumented students free access to a public education. But even today, some school districts haven't gotten the message.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Several years ago, Education and Justice Department officials started getting complaints about children being turned away because they couldn't prove legal residency in the U.S. Some schools were demanding Social Security Numbers, state issued I.D.s, or asking parents for documents showing their date of entry into the U.S.

In response, in 2011, the Education Department issued guidelines telling school districts they couldn't do that, any of it.

SECRETARY ARNE DUNCAN: But sadly, too many school districts are still denying rights to immigrant children.

SANCHEZ: Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

DUNCAN: In fact, the Office of Civil Rights at our Education Department has received 17 complaints since our 2011 guidelines were released.

SANCHEZ: Some of those complaints are so serious they've drawn the scrutiny of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

ERIC HOLDER: And that's why we are issuing newly updated guidance today, so that no child, no child is denied his or her basic right to public education.

SANCHEZ: Holder and Duncan want schools to be clear about the kinds of documents they can legally require of immigrant parents enrolling their kids in school. For example, they can ask for a child's address or utility bills. But they cannot require anyone's Social Security Number. They can ask, but if they do, they have to tell parents it's voluntary.

With at least 1.1 million undocumented school children in the U.S., some experts are surprised there haven't been a lot more complaints recently.

MICHAEL OLIVAS: The fact that there's only 17 official complaints is probably the tip of the iceberg. But I don't think it's a large iceberg.

SANCHEZ: Michael Olivas is a law professor at the University of Houston. He wrote a book about the case, Plyler versus Doe, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that undocumented children had a right to a free public education. Olivas says schools generally don't want to be seen as an extension of immigration control and enforcement. But they do need basic information to sort out all kinds of services a child may need, from free lunch to transportation.

OLIVAS: I always start with the premise that these schools districts act in good faith and just simply don't know any better

SANCHEZ: Education Secretary Arne Duncan says he wants to believe that as well, but schools still have to obey the law.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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