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Attorney General Holder Delivers Remarks on Guidance for School Districts to Ensure Equal Access for All Children to Public Schools, Regardless of Immigration Status


United States

Good morning – and thank you all for joining us for today’s call.  It is a privilege to speak with you about such an important issue, and it’s a particular pleasure to do so alongside my good friend Secretary Duncan, who has been an innovative and a steadfast leader, throughout his career, in ensuring access to education for everyone in this country.

Three decades ago, the Supreme Court issued a historic ruling – in the case of Plyler v. Doe – that legislation denying children an education based on immigration status “does not comport with fundamental conceptions of justice.”

Building on crucial constitutional principles like the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment – and reflecting the values of critical laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – the landmark Plyler decision has driven national efforts to ensure access to public education for every child in America – regardless not only of race, color, and national origin, but also of the immigration status of a child or that child’s parents.

In 2011, the Departments of Justice and Education issued guidance designed to help schools understand their responsibilities under Plyler and federal civil rights law more generally.  In the three years since, we have worked with scores of school districts to ensure that they are fulfilling their obligations under both constitutional and federal law.

Yet we have continued to hear troubling reports of actions – being taken by school districts around the country – that have a chilling effect on student enrollment, raising barriers for undocumented children and children from immigrant families who seek to receive the public education to which they are entitled.

Such actions and policies not only harm innocent children, they also markedly weaken our nation – as the Court recognized in Plyler – by leaving young people unprepared and ill-equipped to succeed and contribute to what is, in many cases, the only home they have ever known.

Now, our experience has generally shown that school districts are eager to make their enrollment processes consistent with the law – and to maintain welcoming environments for all students.

Public school districts have an obligation to enroll students regardless of immigration status and without discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin.  The Justice Department will do everything it can to make sure schools meet this obligation.  We will vigilantly enforce the law to ensure the schoolhouse door remains open to all.

We know that educators, more than anyone, understand just how much every school day counts in the life of a young person.  And that’s why we are issuing newly-updated guidance today – to address the issues we have seen since the release of our last guidance and to provide districts with additional tools and practical information they can use to meet their federal obligations – so that no child is denied his or her basic right to public education.

For example, our new guidance emphasizes the need for flexibility in accepting documents from parents to prove a child’s age and to show that a child resides within a school’s attendance area.  It provides specific examples of the types of documents that many schools have accepted.  And it reminds schools that they may not require certain documents – such as a parent’s state-issued driver’s license – where such a requirement would prevent a student from enrolling because of his or her parent’s immigration status.

Especially as we approach the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, in which Chief Justice Earl Warren called education “a right which must be made available to all on equal terms,” it is imperative that we do everything in our power to end policies or practices that deny this right to those who are constitutionally entitled to it.

I hope – and expect – that this new guidance will aid in our effort to do just that.

I want to thank the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division – and my friend Secretary Duncan and his colleagues, once again – for their exemplary work on this issue.  The Justice Department looks forward to continuing to work with the Department of Education, its partners, and leaders at the state level to provide education and opportunity for all.

Now it’s my pleasure to hand things off to Secretary Duncan.

Updated August 18, 2015