By Susana Sánchez, Community Mobilization Intern
While the anti-immigrant law, known as S.B. 1070, has been making headlines on all major newspapers and magazines, little is known of similar measures on a progressive state such as New York.
Last Friday, the New York Times reported that “one in five school districts in New York State is routinely requiring a child’s immigration papers as a prerequisite to enrollment, or asking parents for information that only lawful immigrants can provide.”
According to the fourth letter sent to New York State Education Department (SED) Commissioner, David M. Steiner, by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), 139 N.Y. school districts (20% of all school districts) seem to be requesting proof of children’s legal immigration status when registering for school. Since September 2009, NYCLU has been requesting SED to review registration procedures in all state schools districts. However, SED has refused to take any further action as stated in its response letter sent to NYCLU last April.
The NY Times’ article reports that:
No one has been turned away for lack of immigration paperwork and that some school officials quickly dropped a requirement for a visa or green card, and changed questions about citizenship to ones seeking verification of a child’s birth date.
The article also reports that some of these schools districts, immediately after being contacted, have changed the language, and other schools requested immigration documents simply because they had not updated their paperwork and/or websites. Although some of these schools districts did not intend to discourage the enrollment of undocumented children, some schools districts went even further to ask for the “right visa” or used federal immigration jargon such as “J1 or F1 visas.”
Whether intentional or not, two main concerns remain for immigrant rights advocates: why schools are infringing on constitutional law? And why has SED refused to take actions to ensure that N.Y. school districts are complying with the constitution?
Three decades ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe that denying public education (kindergarten to k12) to undocumented children violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Since the 1982 Supreme Court decision, undocumented children are legally entitled to receive elementary education as any other U.S. citizen child do.
Even though NY school districts may not have purposely aimed to deter enrollment of undocumented children, such policies do take a toll on the immigrant community and as immigrants rights advocates we have to be alert and vigilant. Many in the undocumented immigrant community clearly understand their vulnerable legal status and so avoid any possible encounter with the judiciary system or administrative paperwork that may lead to their detention and deportation. Thus, it is worrisome that these school districts are asking for documentation that only legal residents can provide because it may discourage parents from enrolling their children in school; even when one of the reasons the Supreme Court used in their decision was just that:
“Without an education, these undocumented [a]lready disadvantaged as a result of poverty, lack of English-speaking ability, and undeniable racial prejudices, . . . will become permanently locked into the lowest socio-economic class.”
While requesting children’s proof of legal immigrant status may not encourage the undocumented immigrant community to leave the country, such measures do police and promote fear in a community that is already marginalized. These policies further disempower an already disfranchised community that as the anti-immigrant, anti-Latino sentiments and policies increase is less likely to trust government institutions or government officials.
SED’s reluctance to act upon NYCLU’s request reminds us how undocumented immigrants, as long as they remain legally unauthorized in the country, will be subject to discrimination, even if when such discrimination is unconstitutional. It also motivates us, as immigrants’ rights advocates, to continue fighting for a comprehensive immigration reform.
By Susana Sánchez, Community Mobilization Intern is supported by the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program