DOJ Reaches Settlement with Florida School District

The U.S. Department of Justice and the Palm Beach County School District in Florida have reached a settlement agreement following complaints that the school district discriminated against immigrant families.

The department had been investigating complaints that the school system failed to enroll children based on their immigration status and that its disciplinary actions discriminated against students based on their immigrant status or limited English proficiency.

The Palm Beach County Legal Aid Society and the Florida Equal Justice Center filed the complaints against the district in August 2011, the Florida Sun Sentinel reported, saying that two teenagers were not able to register at Boca Raton High School because they lacked documents. The department had also investigated complaints that immigrant children and ELLs were suspended and arrested for offenses that were minor and not violent.

About 20,000 ELLs are district students.

In a statement, Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, said that the agreement would remove barriers to student enrollment, and promote an inclusive environment.

The district must agree to enroll all students, no matter their immigration status. The district must provide translation services during the enrollment and disciplinary process.

The Justice Department has previously cautioned school districts that they must enroll undocumented immigrant children who reside within their boundaries, due to the Supreme Court’s Plyler v. Doe decision.

School district spokesman Nat Harrington told the Palm Beach Post that the district was happy to reach an agreement.

“We remain committed to treating all of our students fairly regardless of their language, backgrounds or their parents’ status,” he said.

Related Links:

– “Palm Beach County schools settle with feds on immigrant policies,” South Florida Sun Sentinel.

– “Justice department finalizes pact with PBC School District to end bias in discipline, registration policies,” The Palm Beach Post. 

– “Justice Department Reaches Settlement with School District of Palm Beach County, Fla.,” U.S. Department of Justice.

– Plyler v. Doe Video History.

Court Rules Alabama Can’t Ask Students About Immigration Status

An Alabama law that required schools to ask the immigration status of students enrolled in the state’s public schools was ruled unconstitutional by a federal appeals court this week.

The schools were supposed to ask for proof of legal status and report data on undocumented children to the state. The law never barred undocumented students from schools, because the Plyler v. Doe U.S. Supreme Court decision guaranteed immigrant children a free public education.

However, the judges in this Alabama case found that asking students’ status could still possibly result in barring children from school. After the law was initially passed, many parents pulled their children out of school. Many students returned after its implementation was blocked.

Both the Obama administration and private organizations filed suit against Alabama’s immigration law.

At one point, an official from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division warned the state superintendent of schools that the law hindered the ability of Latino children to obtain a quality education. The warning said that the law discouraged immigrant parents’ involvement, led to children missing class days and schools becoming less welcoming to Hispanic children.

The judges wrote that fear  could significantly deter undocumented children from enrolling in school.

“Consequently, section 28 operates to place undocumented children, and their families, in an impossible dilemma: either admit your unlawful status outright or concede it through silence,” the court ruled, according to The Birmingham News. “Given the important role of education in our society, and the injuries that would arise from deterring unlawfully present children from seeking the benefit of education, we conclude that the equities favor enjoining this provision,” the court ruled.

Related Links:

– “Alabama public schools can’t check immigration status of students, court rules.” Fox News Latino.

– “Appeals court says requiring schools to collect data on illegal immigrants is unconstitutional.” The Birmingham News.

– “Alabama immigration law casts pall over community’s schools.” Education Week.

– “Court rules that Ala. can’t check student immigration status.” Learning the Language. Education Week.


President Obama Marks Plyler v. Doe Anniversary with Key Immigration Announcement

President Obama’s announcement today that the United States will stop deporting certain young illegal immigrants  brought into the country as children comes on a significant date in history absent from many textbooks and unknown to many Americans.

Perhaps not even the young people affected by the administration’s policy change know about it. And the president did not mention it in his speech. The historic Plyler v. Doe Supreme Court decision, which affirmed undocumented immigrant children’s right to a free public education, marks its 30th anniversary today.

Obama’s decree stops short of the DREAM Act, and is just a temporary measure. To qualify, young people must be 30 or younger, must have been in the U.S. at least five years and must have arrived before they were 16. They must be currently in school, have graduated from high school or earned a GED, or served in the military. They also cannot have a criminal record.

It defers deportation for two years and allows them to get work visas, but does not provide a path to citizenship. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that up to 1.4 million people could benefit from the policy.

“This is the right thing to do,” the president said.

But how did the United States come to be in this position?  There are so many thousands of young people affected because of the still-controversial Plyler decision.

The narrowly decided 5-4 decision made on June 15, 1982,  arose from a  civil rights lawsuit filed in Tyler, Texas. It doesn’t carry the broad name recognition of Brown v. Board of Education. And yet, it is a decision that affects more children today than at the time it was decided.

I was working for The Dallas Morning News when I traveled to Tyler on the case’s 25th anniversary to meet with some of those who were involved in the case. While there, I recorded a series of video interviews and eventually wrote an article about the case.

In 1975, Texas began allowing districts to charge tuition to undocumented immigrant children or to bar them from school.  In 1977, a number of poor Mexican families attempted to enroll their children in Tyler schools. Because they were undocumented immigrants, they were told they would need to pay $1,000 per child, which they could not afford to pay.

Catholic lay worker  Michael McAndrew noticed they were out of school and brought the case to the attention of a local attorney and then the  Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Four families filed suit against the school district and Jim Plyler, the schools superintendent. Texas U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice ruled in favor of the families, and the case went on to the Supreme Court.

In 2007, I visited the humble home of Jose and Lidia Lopez,  one of the couples who challenged the Tyler school district in court. Their children later went on to graduate high school and remain in Tyler, where they are raising their own children.

“School is very important for all children, and they should not be discriminated against because they are Mexican or white or black,” Mr. Lopez said. “They should be equal.”

When I visited Jim Plyler, he said he had changed his mind and supported the decision.

Texas U.S. District Court Judge William Wayne Justice–who decided the case in favor of the children before it was sent to the higher court–told me that it was the most important decision of his lengthy career. Judge Justice has since passed away, but felt confident of his decision until his death at 89.

“I don’t know how many [children] got an education as a result of it, I can speculate it might have been more than a million,” Judge Justice told me. “Without that education they would have been a burden on the rest of us….When Texas educates these children, whether Mexican-American children or children of illegal immigrants we’re giving ourselves a break financially.”

In the Supreme Court’s majority opinion Justice William Brennan, a son of Irish immigrants, wrote: “It is difficult to understand precisely what the State hopes to achieve by promoting the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare and crime.”

Related Links:

– “U.S. to stop deporting some illegal immigrants.” The New York Times. 

– “Secretary Napolitano Announces Deferred Action Process for Young People who are low enforcement Priorities.” Department of Homeland Security.

– Plyler v. Doe: 25 Years Later.” Video interviews with case participants. 

– “25 years ago, Tyler case opened schools to illegal immigrants.” The Dallas Morning News. 

– “Triumphs and Challenges on the 30th Anniversary of Plyler V. Doe.” Center for American Progress. 

– “School is for Everyone: Celebrating Plyler v. Doe. (ACLU) ” The Huffington Post.

– “Supreme Court Immigration Ruling Resonates 30 Years Later.” The School Law Blog. Education Week.