Protecting Immigrant Students’ Rights

Public schools have a legal obligation to enroll and support immigrant students and English language learners. New resources from the SPLC help advocates work with families to ensure schools are meeting this responsibility.
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This week, the Southern Poverty Law Center released two resources for supporting immigrant students and familiesProtecting Immigrant Students’ Rights to a Public Education: A Guide for Families and Advocates and Protecting Immigrant Students’ Rights to a Public Education: A Pamphlet for Families and Advocates.

The guide offers an in-depth orientation to the rights of immigrant students and English language learners, particularly focusing on enrollment and the rights of families. It also explores issues of privacy and additional protections available to some students. Finally, the guide includes sample letters advocates can use to encourage schools and districts to meet their responsibilities to students and families.

Designed to share and available in multiple languages, the pamphlet offers overviews of this information, easy-to-use reference lists and links to further resources.

We caught up with some of our colleagues at the SPLC who helped create these resources. In our conversation with Senior Supervising Attorney Mike Tafelski and Senior Outreach Paralegal Oliver Torres, we learned more about the rights of immigrant students and families—and the ways these resources can help educators and other trusted adults advocate for them.

Both the guide and the pamphlet are designed for families and other student advocates. Can you tell us what readers can expect from them?

This work came out of a listening tour that was done around the Deep South, asking, “What are the biggest issues [immigrant students and families] are facing?”

We know we’re continuing to see enrollment issues for immigrant children, for ELL children. And we want to ensure that all children have access to a high-quality education—that they aren’t being denied access to public education.

To help ensure that access, these resources outline immigrant students’ and families’ rights. 

It doesn’t matter if your family is undocumented or mixed-status or second-generation. The guide offers clear guidelines about what information schools and districts can require to enroll students. It also explains that schools or districts can’t deny enrollment based on certain documents a family may or may not have.

It outlines some other protections students and families are granted by the law, as well. For example, if they’re experiencing unstable housing, a lot of families don’t realize that they may qualify for protection. Their perceived definition of homelessness may be quite different from the way the law defines it. But this guide offers clarification there.

Finally, the resources include advocacy tools. They could be for parents and guardians but also for any advocate. It offers ideas for engaging with schools and districts and sample language that advocates can use to ensure students’ rights are respected.

Find the SPLC’s new guide and pamphlets for advocating for immigrant students and emerging English speakers, along with other resources for educators and administrators, here.

How do you imagine these resources being used?

We want to make sure that this gets into the hands of families and communities who can use the information and use it meaningfully. There are so many families who don’t know what their rights are, who don’t know who to call when they have a question, or they run into a roadblock, whether it’s an enrollment issue or having a document translated.

We want to make sure that they have access to all of the resources that are legally available to them. We want parents or guardians to know what resources they can demand in terms of translation services, in terms of interpretation services. That way, they can advocate for themselves and their students—and ensure their school or district is obeying the law and providing information that is accessible to the family.

Are there any common violations of immigrant students’ rights that educators should be on the lookout for? Anything that they might not immediately recognize as a problem?

One important fact is that schools cannot require a social security number. They can give it as an option [for student identification], but there needs to be an alternative.

Schools are not allowed to exclude anyone who falls within their state’s age range for guaranteed education. If your parents don’t have a social security number, it doesn’t matter. If you don’t have a social security number as a student, it doesn’t matter. Your grandparents don’t have one—it doesn’t matter. You still have the right to access.

The documentation piece is really essential. But the interpretation and translation of documents, too, is really important to flag. Districts often require students and families to provide documents that are unnecessary and then have a very narrow reading of when they are required to provide interpretation and translation services for those families.

A lot of schools and districts don’t know how many documents they are required to translate or the situations when they’re required to provide an interpreter. And so, a lot of times, you’ll see parents or guardians using family members to translate or interpret. And that’s the school’s responsibility.

Can you share any specific examples from your work of times when schools or districts—accidentally or purposefully—violated the rights of immigrant students?

One thing that has ended up happening—and we’ve ended up seeing this in multiple districts—is that [older immigrant students] were being sent to these adult education centers [instead of being enrolled in a public high school].

They weren’t really challenging it because it became so normal in their communities. We were in a small immigrant community in Florida and talking to this one student, and he was like, “Oh yes, I come to this [alternative education center] because this is where all the Guatemalan kids are. We just come to adult ed at night.”

Aside from the importance of advocating alongside families and ensuring they get the resources they need, what do you want educators to know?

Listen to families. 

When families come in and say, “This is what should happen,” then that is what should be done. And we hope these resources can serve as a helpful voice when folks are going to the districts and saying, “We need an interpreter.”

We found that, oftentimes, we would get calls about students who weren’t being enrolled properly, who weren’t getting an interpreter, who weren’t getting a translator. And we would say the same thing that the families were saying to the school. But it was like once they had a lawyer, then the district would listen and change. If the school had just listened to the family when they first walked in the door and said the same thing that we did, you know, it could have been resolved.

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Learning for Justice in the South

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