ACLU-NJ Sues School Districts That Discriminate Against Immigrants

October 18, 2016

After surveying school districts’ enrollment policies periodically for close to a decade, the ACLU-NJ took legal action against five New Jersey school districts for putting up barriers to enrollment for the children of undocumented immigrants. These four districts and a charter school, from four counties, all have policies requiring documents that demonstrate immigration status as a condition of enrollment, in violation of the Constitution and state law. 

All children residing in a district have a right to enroll in school, and school districts are forbidden from excluding them based on their or their parents’ immigration status. The ACLU-NJ calls on the state Department of Education (DOE) to take a more active role in enforcing civil rights laws in public education. The DOE should provide districts with model enrollment forms and conduct regular audits to ensure compliance.

Fair Lawn School District (PDF) in Bergen County, Jersey City Global Charter School (PDF) in Hudson County, Jamesburg School District (PDF) and Spotswood School District (PDF) in Middlesex County, and Port Republic School District (PDF) in Atlantic County each prevent the enrollment of immigrant students by requiring identification that someone without a Social Security number or valid immigration status cannot obtain.

ACLU-NJ’s lawsuits ask the courts to halt these unconstitutional school registration requirements immediately. The organization calls on the State DOE to monitor such policies vigilantly and to take swift action against schools that violate it.

“The ACLU of New Jersey can’t play a perpetual game of whack-a-mole with New Jersey school districts, and we shouldn’t have to,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. “It’s the job of the Department of Education to make sure New Jersey school districts are following the Constitution, and they must take that duty seriously. The law is clear: schools cannot discriminate, and they should be held accountable when they do.”

Specifically, the districts required documents from parents that are not available to undocumented immigrants:

  • Spotswood, Port Republic – Driver’s licenses
  • Jamesburg – New Jersey-issued driver’s license
  • Fair Lawn – Driver’s licenses and automobile registration
  • Jersey City Global Charter School – “State ID”

These four school districts and one charter school have maintained their discriminatory policies despite the ACLU-NJ’s repeated warnings over the years that these restrictions violate students’ rights and make the districts vulnerable to legal action. 

Stemming in part from ACLU-NJ surveys and lawsuits, the United States Departments of Education and Justice in 2014 jointly wrote a letter to school districts across the country emphasizing that the Constitution requires equal access to public education for all students. The guidance specified that requiring driver’s licenses during the enrollment process is impermissible. In 2010, the State DOE issued guidance (PDF) to districts making clear that practices that chill enrollment of immigrant children are forbidden. However, given the recurrence of districts that violate civil rights, the ACLU-NJ believes the DOE needs to go much further.

“Especially in our current climate, schoolchildren and their families deserve assurance that their schools will not discriminate against them because of their immigration status,” said ACLU-NJ Public Policy Director Ari Rosmarin. “If the DOE won’t act, we will. We cannot stand quietly by and let districts discriminate. The Christie Administration needs to do its job and take action to stop this unlawful, harmful discrimination.”

In 2014, the ACLU-NJ discovered that 136 school districts imposed illegal barriers to immigrant student enrollment and wrote letters asking them to comply with the law. More than 100 changed their policies, but 27 others did not. The ACLU-NJ sued the seven districts with the most severe policies. A few months before that, the ACLU-NJ had filed a lawsuit against the Butler School District when the school district refused to end its policy, and the district ultimately agreed to drop the restrictions.

A 1982 Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe, forbids school districts from excluding children from enrolling based on their or their parents’ immigration status. New Jersey has two requirements that families must meet when attempting to enroll a child in public school: proof of age and proof of in-district residency. Both federal and state law and regulations dictate that schools cannot ask about a students’ immigration status, or, further, discriminate based on national origin or immigration status. 

Read the lawsuits online (all PDF files):

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