By Karol Brown

“[I]t is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life
if he [or she] is denied the opportunity of an education.”
Brown v. Board of Education

Recently, state legislatures around the country have debated or approved laws that penalize undocumented immigrants.  Not only are these efforts misguided, many of them may also violate our Constitution and federal law. Some state lawmakers have even attempted to ban the children of undocumented immigrants from public elementary, middle, and high schools while other proposals would restrict educational opportunities for undocumented immigrant children.  Both examples are clear contradictions of US Supreme Court decisions and federal law.

The confusion stirred by debate over these laws led some school districts to deny enrollment to immigrant students. The US Justice and Education Departments recently sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to school districts around the country reminding them of the right of all children to enroll in school.  The letter states, “We have become aware of student enrollment practices that may chill or discourage the participation, or lead to the exclusion, of students based on their or their parents’ or guardians’ actual or perceived citizenship or immigration status.” This letter clarifies the fundamental obligation of schools and policy makers to ensure that all our children become contributing and valuable members of our society.

US Justice and Education Department officials described the legal framework governing access to education for immigrants and people of color.  The US Supreme Court held in Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982), that a state may not deny access to basic public education to any child residing in that state, whether present in the United States legally or not.  Denying “innocent children” access to public education, the Court explained, “imposes a lifetime hardship on a discrete class of children not accountable for their disabling status…. By denying these children a basic education, we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions, and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our Nation.”  Plyler, 457 U.S. at 223. This decision affirmed the notion that all children are entitled to elementary and secondary public education.

Beyond the Plyler decision, federal civil rights law also requires that schools not discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin.  Schools may not bar students from enrolling in public schools at the elementary and secondary level on the basis of their citizenship, their own immigration status, or the immigration status of their parents.  The Justice and Education Department letter provided schools with examples of permissible enrollment practices as well as examples of illegal practices denying students access to education.  They also issued a Question & Answer and Fact Sheet with additional information on the legal responsibilities of schools.

In the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), the Supreme Court stated the key reason for ensuring access to education for all. “[I]t is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he [or she] is denied the opportunity of an education.”  Id. at 493.  The future of our country depends on our ability to educate all young people within our community.

We welcome the letter from the Departments of Justice and Education that reaffirms the rights of immigrant children in the United States. It arrives at a time when much of the public conversation about immigrants is about students. Whether it’s the tens of thousands of undocumented immigrant students who would like to pursue college, the military, and later careers in the United States, or the fight to protect the citizenship of children born on American soil, now is the time for a clear voice from the Obama administration reminding us that all school-aged children in the United States have the right to enroll in public school.

Beyond a letter from the White House or executive agencies, we welcome a real push for meaningful immigration reform in Congress. Without a sustainable solution that fixes our broken immigration system, state legislatures will continue to pass patchwork immigration legislation that contradicts and contravenes our nation’s interests.