NEWARK - As New Jersey students head back to school, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has released findings that at least 20 percent of New Jersey public school districts are breaking the law by asking for information that would reveal a parent or child's Social Security number or immigration status as a prerequisite for enrollment. On Friday, the ACLU-NJ sent letters to Department of Education Commissioner Lucille Davy and the 187 offending school districts in New Jersey asking them to more aggressively enforce the laws that stop schools from requesting Social Security numbers or immigration status.
"The law is clear -- so why are so many schools still illegally requesting this information?" asked ACLU-NJ Racial Justice Attorney Nadia Seeratan, who oversaw the study. "The Constitution promises every child in the United States a right to education; requiring proof of citizenship as a condition of enrollment breaks that promise."
Beginning in July, the ACLU-NJ attempted to survey 635 New Jersey school entities listed by county on the Department of Education website (615 districts as well as 20 charter schools, which have unique application processes) to assess the legality of their enrollment requirements. ACLU-NJ staff and volunteers successfully contacted 516, or 80 percent, of all school districts and charter schools.
The survey found that 139 - over a quarter of those successfully contacted - illegally required information that would reveal the Social Security number or immigration status of students seeking to enroll despite state, federal and constitutional laws prohibiting the practice. Another 48 suggested that immigration information would help in the registration process. Thus, a total of 187 - more than one in three - responded in violation of the law or in a manner prone to deter student enrollment.
At least 35 school districts in the state requested Social Security numbers or immigration information on their written enrollment forms, including Hackensack, Hoboken and Roselle Park.
Monmouth County was the worst offender, with 26 districts requiring citizenship or immigration-related information to enroll.
When the ACLU-NJ conducted a similar survey two years ago, it found that 58 of the 224 school districts surveyed required proof of a child's immigration status. Of those, nearly two-thirds said they would remove sections of their enrollment forms asking for students' status. In this year's follow-up survey, 21 of the offending school districts from 2006 still required that information, including Irvington, Trenton and Middlesex.
"Two years after our first survey of schools, we've found the same problems, and in many cases, in the same schools," said Seeratan. "Many of New Jersey's children won't have equal access to an education unless schools follow the law and treat all students equally."
Attending school is one of the fastest ways for immigrant children to assimilate in the United States, and an education empowers students to become productive members of an open society. Brown v. the Board of Education called education "perhaps the most important function of state and local governments" and said success in this country is nearly impossible without one. A 2004 Pew Hispanic Center study found that Latinos in New Jersey were the most likely to feel that discrimination in school interfered with their ability to succeed in this country.
"Every child in New Jersey has a right to an education," said Deborah Jacobs, ACLU-NJ executive director. "And it's in our best interests as a society for all children to be educated. New Jersey, as one of the most diverse states in the nation, has a special obligation to make sure all children, from every background and walk of life, can have a solid education."