Immigrant Students' Rights 
to Attend Public Schools
School Opening Alert and Resources
August 21, 2020 - As a new school year begins, this alert is a reminder that public schools, by law, must serve all children.

Education of undocumented students is guaranteed by the Plyler vs. Doe decision, and certain procedures must be followed when registering immigrant children in school to avoid violation of their civil rights. 

In Plyler vs. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that children of undocumented workers and children who themselves are undocumented have the same right to attend public primary and secondary schools as do U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Like other students, children of undocumented workers in fact are required under state laws to attend school until they reach a mandated age. 
School personnel - especially principals and those involved with student registration and enrollment - should be aware that they have no legal obligation to enforce U.S. immigration laws.

This decision is vital because practices that deny or discourage immigrant children and families from public schooling do the following...

*...victimize innocent children - Children of undocumented workers do not choose the conditions under which they enter the United States. They should not be punished for circumstances they do not control. Children have the right to learn and be useful members of society.

*...hurt the country - Denying children access to education does not eliminate illegal immigration. Instead, it ensures the creation of an underclass. Without public education for children, illiteracy rates will increase and opportunities for workforce and community participation will decrease. Research has proven that for every $1 spent on the education of children, at least $9 is returned.

*...waste valuable time while losing sight of principle goals of public education - Rather than teaching students, school officials would spend their time asking our millions of school children about their citizenship status. States would be forced to spend millions of dollars to do the work of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.

*...promote misinformation - Incorrect assumptions and inappropriate figures have been used to blame immigrants and their children for economic problems.

*...encourage racism and discrimination - In turbulent, financially troubled times, immigration often becomes a focal point of public discourse. A preoccupation with the immigration status of children of undocumented workers is a form of discrimination and racism.

As a result of the Plyler ruling, public schools may not:
  • deny admission to a student during initial enrollment or at any other time on the basis of undocumented status;
  • treat a student differently to determine residency;
  • engage in any practices to "chill" the right of access to school;
  • require students or parents to disclose or document their immigration status;
  • make inquiries of students or parents intended to expose their undocumented status; or
  • require social security numbers from all students, as this may expose undocumented status.
Schools should not use Social Security numbers for identification or registration purposes. For those schools that do, it should be clear from the beginning that students who do not present a Social Security number will be assigned a number generated by the school. While schools may request a birth certificate, they may not bar students from enrolling if they do not have a birth certificate. Adults without Social Security numbers who are applying for a free lunch and/or breakfast program for a student need only state on the application that they do not have a Social Security number.

The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act prohibits schools from providing any outside agency - including the ICE agency - with any information from a child's school file that would expose the student's undocumented status. The only exception is if an agency gets a court order (subpoena) that parents can then challenge. Schools should note that even requesting such permission from parents might act to "chill" a student's Plyler rights.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education in 2014 clarified the intent of the Plyler ruling in a letter advising school officials that activities that deny or discourage students to attend school are unlawful. The letter begins, "Under federal law, state and local educational agencies are required to provide all children with equal access to public education at the elementary and secondary level."

At IDRA, we are working to strengthen schools to work for all children, families and communities. Help us make this goal a reality for every child; we simply cannot afford the alternatives. Denying children of undocumented workers access to an education is unconstitutional and against the law.
Visit IDRA's Education of Immigrant Children webpage for resources, including a copy of the letter from the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education and state-level information on student enrollment in the states served by the IDRA EAC-South.

Infographic _ Welcoming Immigrant Students in School
Infographic _ Welcoming Immigrant Students in School

Free Webinars on Education for Immigrant Families

IDRA and the Consulate General of Mexico in San Antonio have been 
 partnering to help Mexican and Mexican American families navigate the U.S.  education system and learn about important educational opportunities in both  countries.

But since the consultate is closed due to the COVID-19 crisis, IDRA's Ventanilla de OrientaciĆ³n Educativa (VOE) in San Antonio is launching a portal with bilingual materials and videos for families.

* Rights of Immigrant Students (PreK-12)
* Navigating the U.S. K-12 Education System 
* College Financial Aid Opportunities for Immigrant Students
* Adult & Community Education Opportunities in Spanish
* Educational Opportunities in Mexico for Nationals Living in Both Countries

Useful Tools 
eBook cover
See our updated eBook on Supporting Immigrant Students' Rights to Attend Public Schools with resources for schools and communities (English-Spanish). 
Infographic cover
Print our infographic on Welcoming Immigrant Students in School - available in poster size!
flier PDF
Get our printable School Opening Alert (in English-Spanish) and share it with others. 
The Intercultural Development Research Association is an independent, non-profit organization. Our mission is to achieve equal educational opportunity for every child through strong public schools that prepare all students to access and succeed in college. IDRA strengthens and transforms public education by providing dynamic training; useful research, evaluation, and frameworks for action; timely policy analyses; and innovative materials and programs.

We are committed to the IDRA valuing philosophy, respecting the knowledge and skills of the individuals we work with and build on the strengths of the students and parents in their schools.