Attorney General Eric Holder, left, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are warning public schools against restricting, or discouraging, undocumented immigrants from enrolling in K-12 public schools. / Mark Wilson, Getty Images
The Obama administration will issue new guidance to K-12 public schools around the country on Thursday, emphasizing that school officials can no longer discourage undocumented immigrants from enrolling in their schools.
"Such actions and policies not only harm innocent children, they also markedly weaken our nation ... by leaving young people unprepared and ill-equipped to succeed and contribute to what is, in many cases, the only home they have ever known," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.
Starting with Arizona's landmark 2010 law, the nation saw a wave of state and local laws cracking down on undocumented immigrants. Some of those laws required parents of children to provide additional documentation to their local schools establishing the immigration status of the child or the parents.
Federal officials say that violates both federal law and the 1982 Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe, which struck down a Texas law that allowed school districts to bar undocumented immigrants from public schools. In a letter co-authored by officials at the departments of Justice and Education, they said state and local school districts continue attempting to prevent undocumented immigrants from going to school.
"Public school districts have an obligation to enroll students regardless of immigration status and without discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin," Holder said. "We will vigilantly enforce the law to ensure the schoolhouse door remains open to all."
Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan did not single out any school district for preventing or discouraging undocumented immigrants from enrolling in public schools.
But in Alabama, the state passed an immigration law that required parents of students enrolling for the first time to verify their immigration status. School officials said at the time they were not trying to bar undocumented immigrants from their schools but trying to get reliable data on how much the state spends educating them.
After a series of lawsuits from the Department of Justice and other immigration advocacy groups, the state agreed to a settlement that barred that section of the law and several others.
That settlement is why some critics of the administration's immigration policies were confused by the timing of Thursday's announcement.
Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for lower levels of legal and illegal immigration, said he knows of few other examples where school districts have restricted the access of children to public schools.
Beck said the real motivation for the White House is increasing pressure from immigration advocates to slow down or halt deportations.
"It just seems to send a message to the world, 'We are here to protect those who break immigration laws and we're going to do almost nothing to enforce it,' " Beck said.
"For Holder to put this thing out just shows that this administration goes to extreme lengths to protect those that are breaking the immigration laws and does little to protect Americans from the things that immigration laws are supposed to protect them from."
Thursday's announcement included a list of documentation that can, and cannot, be used. A state may allow parents to verify their residency by showing state-issued identification card or driver's license but they cannot require that. A telephone or utility bill, a lease or mortgage document, or a letter from an employer can also be acceptable documentation, Justice said.
Schools can still request the Social Security number of students for identification purposes but the federal officials stressed that failure to have a Social Security number cannot be used to prevent a student from enrolling in the school.
"The message here is clear: let all children who live in your district enroll in your public schools," Duncan said.
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