Immigrant Students’ Rights to Attend Public Schools

As schools are registering students for the next school year, this alert is a reminder that public schools, by law, must serve all children. The 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.

As a result of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plyler vs. Doe, 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.

Yet a number of schools are posting notices like these pictured (right) and on school websites that indicate Social Security cards and birth certificates are required before a family can register their child for school. Such practices are in direct violation of Plyler vs. Doe.

Rather, it should be clear from the beginning that students without a Social Security number should be assigned a number generated by the school. For example, some school districts are including language in their enrollment notices, like:

  • The XYZ Independent School District does not prevent students from enrolling if a Social Security card is not presented. The Social Security number is used for identification purposes when reporting student information to the Texas Education Agency. The campus will assign a computer generated number when a card is not presented.
  • Providing a Social Security card or number is optional. The XYZ Independent School District will not refuse enrollment of any student opting not to provide a social security card/number. In lieu, a state identification number will be provided for educational purposes only.
  • If the student does not have a Social Security number, XYZ ISD will assign a Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS) number. No student may be denied enrollment solely because of failure to meet the documentation requirements. Enrollment is provisional, however, pending receipt of the required documentation and verification of eligibility.

Not only should undocumented students not be discouraged from attending, they are required to attend school under the state’s compulsory education laws. And parents should be assured that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act restricts schools from sharing information with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

At IDRA, we are working to assure educational opportunity for every child. Help us make this goal a reality for every child; we simply cannot afford the alternatives. Denying or discouraging children of undocumented workers access to an education is unconstitutional and against the law.

For more information, see our School Opening Alert (in English and Spanish) online ( And listen to IDRA’s Classnotes Podcast episode on “Immigrant Children’s Rights to Attend Public Schools.”

For help in ensuring that your programs comply with federal law, contact the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Educational Opportunities Section at 877-292-3804 or, or the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights at 800-421-3481 or You also can contact the OCR enforcement office that serves your area.

For more information or to report incidents of school exclusion or delay, call:

  • META (Nationwide) 617- 628-2226
  • MALDEF (Los Angeles) 213-629-2512
  • MALDEF (San Antonio) 210-224-5476
  • NY Immigration Hotline (Nationwide) 212-419-3737
  • MALDEF (Chicago) 312-427-0701
  • MALDEF (Washington, D.C.) 202-293-2828

eBook: Immigrant Students’ Rights to Attend Public Schools on Slideshare

Immigrant Students’ Rights to Attend Public Schools

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[©2016, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2016 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]