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Access to Education

Jan 27, 2012
Lauren Fisher and Michelle Mendez

Maria Jose’s father was a soldier in the Guatemalan Civil War, and it had made him a violent, angry man.  He had a drinking problem, and he beat Maria Jose, her mother, and her younger siblings. One night, Maria Jose tried to defend her mother and her father chased her out of the house with a machete. Maria Jose slept in the homes of different family members, but no one would let her stay for long.  They were all scared of what her father would do.  Maria Jose’s dream was to be a teacher and she was a good student when she could go to school.  Her aunt in Maryland agreed to take her in.  She thought her problems were over when she made it to Maryland.  She was excited when her aunt took her to enroll in the local public high school.  Then the school told her she would need to prove she had not graduated from high school in Guatemala by getting a letter from the Ministry of Education of Guatemala.  They told her that her parents could get the official documentation for her.


Every child has the right to a basic public education.  In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled that under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment an undocumented immigrant child should have the same right to an education as any other child. Plyler vs. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982).  In the decision, the Supreme Court acknowledged that denying an immigrant child an education “imposes a lifetime hardship on a discrete class of children not accountable for their disabling status...” Id. at 223.   The court’s decision guarantees every child in the United States—regardless of immigration status—the right to a basic education. 

Since the Plyler decision, immigrant advocates have continued to struggle with difficult local school district enrollment processes that appear designed to discourage immigrant parents from enrolling their children in school.  On May 6, 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education published a joint letter instructing public schools that they cannot make the process of enrolling overly difficult or invasive for the purpose of denying enrollment. The letter clearly states that “districts may not request information with the purpose or result of denying access to public schools on the basis of race, color, or national origin.” Despite this policy, schools across the country are demanding documents that are difficult or impossible for immigrant families to obtain.

 As in Maria Jose’s case, schools often request official government documents. Obtaining such documents from a developing country is incredibly time consuming and expensive.  The process requires the presence of helpful family members in the country of origin, and assumes that those family members have the means to travel to the capital city. In short, such a requirement from the local schools completely ignores the reality that most immigrant children face. The result of such a request is the temporary or permanent deprivation of the constitutionally protected right to a primary public education.

Schools are also placing undue hurdles on school enrollment.  Schools in coveted districts battle enrollment abuses by non-residents who hope to benefit from the prestige and resources of neighboring school districts.  One way schools discourage enrollment by non-resident children is by charging tuition to those children who do not live with their parents and who are unable to produce a letter from the parents stating why.  Like Maria Jose, many immigrant children do not live with their parents for good reason, but cannot produce a letter from the parents explaining the situation. To subject the children to this requirement or charge a tuition their family cannot afford also deprives them of an education.

To be in compliance with the Supreme Court precedent set by the Plyler decision, schools should reevaluate their enrollment regulations and provide alternative forms of documentation for immigrant families that will be easier for them to obtain.  Otherwise, we as a society disadvantage immigrant children 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.


*Lauren works at the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) and is the Legal Orientation Program for Custodians of Unaccompanied Children (LOPC) Project Coordinator

*Michelle works at Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Washington and is the LOPC Project Coordinator for the Silver Spring, MD LOPC site