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Don't Deny Immigrant Kids An Education

The following appeared in the Star-Ledger on September 8, 2004. It was written by Parastou Hassouri, ACLU-NJ Immigrant Rights Specialist.

I immigrated to the United States with my parents as a young teenager. My early days in an American middle school were not easy. I struggled with a new language, a new culture, and students and teachers whose only images and ideas about my native country of Iran were tied to the hostage crisis.

However, over the course of months and years, slowly but surely, I became comfortable with English and familiar with American culture, and my new friends and teachers learned that Iran has a 5000 year-old history, defined by much more than the 1979 revolution and its aftermath.

Students in the United States from ages 6 to18 spend nearly half their waking hours in or around school. My time in school was undoubtedly the single most important factor in facilitating my assimilation into American life, and in shaping my sense of who I am and who I can be.

With each passing year, I grow increasingly aware of the pivotal role education plays in American society. As the U.S. Supreme Court stated in its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments . . . In these days, it is doubtful that any child may be reasonably expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”

In light of the critical importance of education to the success of our nation, it troubles me to read recent media reports about New Jersey schools illegally requiring parents to provide Social Security numbers when registering their children for school. New Jersey law prohibits this, and many immigrants - both those lawfully admitted and the undocumented - cannot provide these numbers. Are the school districts requiring Social Security numbers ignorant of the law, or is this a discriminatory means of preventing immigrants from enrolling their children in school?

School administrators should know that the law on this point is well-settled. Over two decades ago, in Plyler v. Doe, the Supreme Court struck down a Texas statute that would have withheld funds from school districts that enrolled children who were not “legally admitted” into the country.

In holding that all students, regardless of immigration status, are entitled to a public education up to grade 12, the Court recognized that undocumented students should not be penalized for their status, over which they have no control. The Court also recognized that denial of an education to these students is a denial “of the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions.” The Court said that due to the nature of immigration laws in the U.S., “the illegal alien of today may well be the legal alien of tomorrow,” and

that without an education, immigrant children, already handicapped by poverty, linguistic barriers and racial prejudice, would be at risk of becoming a permanent underclass.

New Jersey is home to more than 1.5 million foreign-born residents whose collective contributions have made ours a richer and more dynamic state. We have the benefit of having an extremely diverse immigrant community, the largest portion of which comes from Latin America. However, a March 2004 Pew Hispanic Center comparative survey of Latinos living in the five states with the largest Latino populations (California, Texas, Florida, New York, and New Jersey) found that Latinos in New Jersey were most likely to feel that discrimination, particularly in schools, interferes with their ability to succeed in the United States. Given these facts and findings, we should seek ways to create a more inclusive society, rather than to exclude already marginalized communities.

Obviously, the offending school districts must be made to abide by New Jersey law and stop requiring Social Security numbers to register students.

No group of people has as much faith in education as immigrants. We often come to this country with no wealth or connections, and see education and hard work as the keys to our future. Education gives us a sense of security, and the tools we need to navigate in our new country.

Fifty years after Brown and more than twenty years after Plyler, vast segments of our population should not still feel the sting of racial and ethnic discrimination and exclusion. Depriving immigrant students of the opportunity to attend school is a deprivation to us all.

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