Immigrant children living in the U.S. without legal status have been blocked from registering for school and accessing the educational services they need, according to a report on school districts in four states by Georgetown University Law Center researchers.
Such students have faced long enrollment delays and have been turned away from classrooms as the result of some districts' arbitrary interpretations of residency rules and state laws, the researchers said.
All children including those living in the U.S. illegally must attend school through at least the 8th grade or until they turn 16 under compulsory education laws in all 50 states. Many states allow students to enroll beyond that age, according to the Education Commission of the States. But some districts' elaborate paperwork requirements effectively have kept immigrant youth out of school, while lack of translation and interpretation services have left their families uninformed about the process, the report found.
The Obama administration's efforts to find and deport the tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children and families who arrived during the 2014 surge of illegal crossings have further complicated the situation, prompting some students to avoid school for fear that they will be picked up by authorities, the report's authors said.
"U.S. law is clear on this point no child in the United States should be excluded from public education," said Mikaela Harris, a Georgetown law student who co-wrote the study issued by the university's Human Rights Institute and the nonprofit Women's Refugee Commission. "That doesn't always play out in practice."
In May 2014, then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan issued joint guidance with the Justice Department reminding districts that a 1982 Supreme Court ruling gives all children the right to enroll in school, regardless of immigration status.
The report, which studied school districts in Florida, New York, Texas and North Carolina, calls for a strengthening of federal outreach to districts unaccustomed to serving newcomer populations and better assurances that educational access continues amid immigration enforcement.
Researchers said they had presented their recommendations to the Department of Education.
"We remain vigilant about our responsibility to protect the civil rights of all students, including immigrant students, undocumented students and unaccompanied immigrant students," Education Department spokeswoman Dorie Nolt said. "We have provided a number of resources to communities in order to do so."
The agency is committed to working with federal agencies and community organizations to address any issues, she added.
U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement spokesman Bryan Cox said he had not seen the report so could not comment on it, but said agency policy in general precludes any enforcement activity at schools and other sensitive locations.
The report analyzed barriers to education faced by the 775,000 children under the age of 18 estimated to be living in the United States without legal permission, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of 2012 Census figures. Since fall 2013, more than 100,000 unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras also have sought refuge in the U.S. and have been placed in communities across the country after being apprehended at the border.
Researchers said an additional estimated 1.6 million school-aged immigrant children who were brought to the U.S. legally may live in mixed-status families and face similar barriers. Public school districts are entitled to request and vet paperwork to establish students' residency, but some have gone a step beyond, requiring immigration documents, researchers found.
"Under federal law, schools are not allowed to discriminate against children due to their racial or ethnic background," the report said. "And yet, some communities have barred immigrant children from enrolling or meaningfully participating in school by creating intentional and unintentional barriers."