By: Rachel Grossman, ACLU Pollitt Fellow.

The law guarantees every child in the United States equal access to public elementary and secondary education. But the truth is that not every child in America has an equal opportunity to attend public schools. In North Carolina and across the country, immigrant children face significant barriers when enrolling in public schools. Before they even show up to register, many of these children or their family members face traumatic migration experiences, and many struggle with language barriers as well as economic and legal instability.  Some North Carolina schools then erect further hurdles.

Preventing a child from enrolling in school because of the child’s citizenship, immigration status, or the status of their parents or guardians is unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court decided that exact issue more than three decades ago, in a case called Plyler v. Doe.

Yet, in North Carolina, more than 50 districts currently require a child’s certified birth certificate in order to enroll—a common enough document for children born in U.S. hospitals, but not one that is universally issued. Another 50 districts require a child’s parent or guardian to provide a state-issued photo ID as proof of identification, even though North Carolina does not issue drivers’ licenses or state ID cards to residents without legal status. And nine school districts either specifically require or strongly encourage parents to provide their child’s social security number when enrolling them in school. Social security numbers are not issued to people without a legal presence in the United States, even though the Social Security Administration calculated that undocumented workers contributed $13 billion to the program in just one year. Indeed, certain categories of immigrants who have already completed legal requisites also do not receive social security numbers. These enrollment requirements effectively block undocumented students and students with undocumented parents, as well as other groups of immigrants, from obtaining the equal access to public education guaranteed to them by the Constitution.

Nevertheless, many North Carolina school districts continue to impose significant barriers for undocumented children seeking public education. In 2014, the Obama administration sought to correct these problems and issued guidance to school districts, asking schools to review documentation requirements to ensure they did not unlawfully bar or discourage immigrant students, or students with undocumented parents or guardians, from enrolling in and attending school. Yet more than five years later, these practices remain widespread in North Carolina.

School districts can and should take simple and concrete steps to correct these concerns so that they do not unlawfully bar or discourage immigrant students, or students with undocumented parents or guardians, from enrolling in and attending school. For example, administrators should be prepared to accept a wide variety of documents showing a child’s age, including medical records, affidavits, and records maintained by religious organizations. Utility bills, mortgages, and lease agreements may all serve as proof of residency within the district, removing the need to review parent photo IDs. And enrollment policies highlighting that undocumented children are welcome in public schools should be available in multiple languages, easily accessible online, and posted in community spaces throughout town.

As the Supreme Court observed in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark civil rights case that desegregated American schools, “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he [or she] is denied the opportunity of an education.” 

If you or someone you know has experienced difficulty enrolling in public school as a result of your citizenship or immigration status, please contact the ACLU of North Carolina.