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KNOW YOUR RIGHTS: All Children, Regardless of Immigration Status,

Have the Right to Attend a Free Public School in the U.S.

By Maura Hagen, Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow

Michigan Immigrant Rights Center


All children, regardless of immigration status, can attend a free public school in the United

States. This right is guaranteed by law. In 1982, the United States Supreme Court decided a

case called Plyler v. Doe. This case invalidated a Texas statute that denied enrollment in the

public schools to children not “legally admitted” in the country.


The Supreme Court said that denial of education violates not only our political and cultural history, but also the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. Justice Brennan, who wrote the Supreme Court opinion, said, “Education provides the basic tools by which individuals might lead economically productive lives to the benefit of us all.


In sum, education has a fundamental role in maintaining the fabric of our society. We cannot ignore the significant social costs borne by our Nation when select groups are denied the means to absorb the values and skills upon which our social order rests.”


What does the Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe mean to undocumented children? It

means that 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 verify residency;

- Engage in any practices that “chill” or hinder the right of access to school;

- Make inquiries of students or parents that may expose their undocumented status.



• Are schools allowed to require Social Security Numbers?
NO – According to the Privacy Act of 1974, social security numbers are not required for enrollment. While a school may ask for a number, it must explain at the same time that it does not require the number and that it will assign a unique identifier to any student who does not have a social security number.


• Are schools allowed to require Birth Certificates?
NO - Birth Certificates cannot be required

for enrollment. The Michigan Revised School Code (MCL 380.1135(1)) provides that a person

enrolling in school can have either (1) a certified copy of the birth certificate; OR (2) other

reliable proof of the student’s identity and age AND an affidavit explaining the inability to

produce a copy of the birth certificate. The Revised School Code is flexible as to what

constitutes other reliable proof that could serve as an alternative to a birth certificate.


Examples of documents that could be accepted by schools in the alternative are:

- Church Record (baptismal document – showing date, place of child’s birth, names of

child’s parents);

- School Record (information showing date of admission, child’s date of birth or age at the

time, the place of birth, the names of the parents);

- Census Record (state or federal census record showing the names, place of birth, date of

birth, or the age of the person listed);

- Affidavits (written statements sworn to or affirmed by two persons who were living at

the time and who have personal knowledge of the child’s birth).


• Are schools allowed to require Immunization Proof?
YES – Under the Michigan Code (MCL 333.9208, 333.9215, 380.1177), immunizations may be required before a child can be permitted to enter or attend school. School districts may require that parents or guardians present documentation at the time of registration or not later that the first day of school that: (1) their child has received all required doses of vaccines OR (2) that their child has received at least one dose of each of the required vaccines and is waiting to receive the subsequent doses.


Vaccinations may be waived if there is a valid medical complication or the parents have

opposing religious convictions. The key issue with respect to immunizations is that children

should not be treated differently because of their national origin, English proficiency, or

migrant status. All children should be treated equally under the school district’s policy. School districts may not require additional or different immunizations for immigrant or migrant children.



• Are undocumented children entitled to participate on The Free and Reduced School Lunch or Breakfast programs?
YES – According to federal regulations (7 C.F.R. 245.3(b)(2); 245 6(a)), the Free and Reduced School Lunch or Breakfast programs are available to low-income children regardless of their immigration status or their parent’s immigration status. While the application for the free and reduced meal programs has a blank for a parent or guardian’s social security number, parents who have not been issued a social security number may state “none.”


• Should schools provide special Language classes for children whose English is not their first language?
YES - A school could be committing national origin discrimination under Title VI if it fails to provide some form of language assistance to limited English proficient students who are

otherwise precluded from participating meaningfully in school. This law is from a case called

Lau v. Nichols decided by the Supreme Court of the United States.


• Are undocumented children entitled to participate on Special Education Needs Programs?

YES - Migrant students with special education needs are entitled to receive free appropriate

education. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), the law requires that children be fairly assessed in their native language, and classified according to the type of disability. The assessment and the placement must be carried out quickly and parents must be kept informed of their child’s educational plan in a language the parent understands.



• School districts have the responsibility to adequately notify parents of national origin minority group students of school activities that are called to the attention of the other parents.

Notification must be sufficient so that parents can make well-informed decisions about the

participation of their children in a district’s programs and services. Districts may be required to provide notification in the parents’ home language. This information was published on The

Provision of Equal Educational Opportunity to Limited-English Proficient Students published by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil rights in August 2000.


• The state of Michigan and each school district that receives monies from the federal migrant education program for a regular school year program must have a migrant parent advisory committee to develop a comprehensive plan according to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002.



Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), educators are not allowed to

release a child’s educational records without parental or guardian consent. Educators are also NOT allowed to “expose” children and their families to immigration enforcement authorities.

FERPA mandates that no funds shall be made available to any educational agencies or

institutions that release a student’s “personally identifiable information” without the written

consent of the student’s parents or guardians. The federal regulations define “personally

identifiable information” as including, but not limited to, the student’s name, the names of the

student’s parents, and most importantly, a social security number or other personal identifier

of the student.


If you have any questions or know of any child that has been denied an education due to his or her national origin, immigration status, limited English proficiency, or frequent

migration, contact the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center at (269) 492-7196:


Copyright © 1989 to 2013 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 09/03/13 20:18:33 -0700.




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