Are These the “Right” Documents?

Dear Dr. Mooney, 

I am an EL Specialist in a district with quite a few English Learners. My school has one of the highest percentages of ELs in the district. This year, I have been getting fewer and fewer new ELs in my classes even though I know from other sources that immigrant families continue to move into our attendance boundaries. I began to wonder if something was preventing new families from enrolling their children in school, so I talked with our office staff who handle enrollment. They told me a couple of stories about families who came and then left when they learned what paperwork was required for enrollment. 

I am afraid our enrollment requirements may be keeping children out of school. Are there particular laws related to this? What can I do?

Concerned and Wondering

I applaud your concern for these students, Concerned and Wondering. Some teachers would be glad to have fewer students, but it’s obvious you care deeply about these students you haven’t even met…yet!

What does the law say?

Yes, there are laws intended to protect English Learners and their families from enrollment difficulties like you mentioned. The ruling from a Texas court case in the early 1980s (Plyler v/s Doe) has been used to uphold students’ rights to a free public education in this country. It is based upon the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which requires states to protect individuals living within their borders. That ruling has been interpreted to mean districts cannot establish procedures that would discourage or prevent students from enrolling due to their immigration status. 

As a result, districts cannot require families to provide the types of documents which unauthorized immigrants might not have. Those include a Social Security card, driver’s license, or a child’s birth certificate. School enrollment forms cannot require individuals to reveal their citizenship status. Although it’s true there are valid reasons for districts asking for information contained in these documents, the motivation to serve the child’s educational needs can come into conflict with legal protections.

It’s a sticky situation!

Districts often ask for birth certificates because they want to make sure they place students in the grade aligned with their age. No one wants a child placed in 5th grade, simply because he’s an 8-year-old who is tall for his age! However, undocumented families may not have official birth certificates with them, or if they do, handing them over to the district reveals the child was born in another country. Parents may be concerned that this revelation could lead to an immigration investigation. 

Utility bills are often required to establish residency within the district and school boundaries. Again, although this is necessary information, some immigrant families may not be able to produce this document because of their current living situation. For example, a newly arrived immigrant family might live with the mother’s brother and his family for a while. If so, the mother does not have a utility bill in her name. All utilities are in her brother’s name.

What are the alternatives?

Alternatives to these routinely required documents are available. To prove a child’s age, districts can accept a copy of a baptismal record or even a birth entry in a family Bible. Residency could be determined by a surprise visit from a district official to the family’s provided address. If the newly enrolled student is there, it’s probably where they live.

The student’s age and residency can be validated through an affidavit. Someone who knows the child, such as the uncle mentioned above, can go to the school with the parent. The uncle can sign an affidavit declaring the child’s birthday and that s/he currently lives at the address provided…his! An affidavit is a legally binding document. So, if the uncle lies about any of the facts he attested to, he could be taken to court. This document is more legally binding than a copy of a birth certificate which could be forged.

When district enrollment procedures mandate certain documents, they explicitly—if unintentionally—discriminate against immigrant families. Doing so sometimes leads to students not attending school, which causes the family to violate truancy laws. It turns into a no-win situation.

Concerned and Wondering,
Since you are the EL Specialist and not in charge of enrollment procedures at your school, the most you can likely do is to inform others of these laws and requirements. I would recommend assuming the enrollment officials are unaware they can accept other documentation. Perhaps simply informing them will be enough to change things. If not, you could bring it to the attention of your building administrator and then district officials. 

Remember the old adage – you often catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Sharing the information in a kind, non-condescending manner will usually produce better results than threatening to file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights. However…persistent, intentional violations such as these might warrant such a complaint in order to advocate for the rights of all students and families.

Learn More
Migration Policy Institute, an independent, nonprofit think tank, published this Issue Brief describing many other areas where there are commonly-misunderstood legal protections of interest to our community members. Check out this article…

Legal Protections for K-12 English Learner and Immigrant-Background Students 

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