Some of the more than 1,400 immigrant children recently relocated to North Carolina are still unable to register for school, prompting civil rights groups to urge federal officials to mandate their admission.
In a letter last week, the civil rights groups said that the state Department of Public Instruction has given conflicting information to school districts on how to register children who’ve been relocated to North Carolina after having been detained at the nation’s southern border. The groups are asking the U.S. Justice Department to make sure that the state’s school districts don’t use admissions policies that keep the immigrants from getting a public education.
The request comes as Gov. Pat McCrory and other Republican governors have questioned the Obama administration’s handling of the roughly 66,000 unaccompanied children who were detained at the border. Last month, McCrory said he wanted more information about the children being placed in the state.
Some county governments – such as Brunswick, Rowan and Surry – have passed resolutions asking that the federal government not relocate any unaccompanied children to their counties. In response, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, N.C. Justice Center and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice appealed to the Justice Department in a letter last week .
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“In the wake of the North Carolina Governor and other public officials’ letter to the President expressing fear that a significant number of unaccompanied immigrant children ‘will end up using the public schools,’ and the NC DPI’s dilution of guidance to school districts, we ask that your agency take immediate action,” the groups wrote.
The new letter is a supplement to a federal civil rights complaint filed in February contending that the school systems in Buncombe and Union counties had discriminated against unaccompanied children by denying, delaying or discouraging enrollment.
But advocates of limiting immigration say the civil rights groups want to put too many restrictions on gathering information that could help the school systems.
“This is just another effort to make sure that we don’t know how many kids are in here illegally,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation For American Immigration Reform.
In May, state schools Superintendent June Atkinson sent a memo to school districts telling them that they can’t deny enrollment to students based on their English skills, lack of a certified birth certificate or Social Security number. The state memo, which also said districts can’t ask students about their immigration status, mirrors guidance jointly sent out by the U.S. Justice and Education departments.
In June, Atkinson issued a new letter that she said replaced her May memo. The civil rights groups contend that the June memo is a retreat from DPI’s earlier position because it contains references to how students can be denied enrollment and omits the May wording about English skills, birth certificates, Social Security numbers and immigration status. The June memo said: “There are very limited circumstances under which an LEA [local education agency] can deny access while validating a student’s documentation,” and it then directed superintendents to sections in North Carolina law.
Lynda Fuller, a DPI spokeswoman, declined to comment on the civil rights complaint or why Atkinson replaced the May memo.
“Any school district in the state that is faced with the prospect of enrolling an unaccompanied minor relies on DPI to provide them guidance and in this case, DPI provided more confusion rather than insight into the state and federal requirements for educating that population of students,” said Terry Stoops, director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation.
Since the start of the federal budget year in October, more than 66,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended crossing the border into the U.S. illegally, nearly double the number from the 2013 budget year. The children have primarily come from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and say they’re fleeing violence or unrest.
Between Jan. 1 and July 31, 37,477 minors were placed nationally with a sponsor, usually a relative, while they await immigration proceedings, according to federal immigration authorities. A total of 1,429 children have been relocated to North Carolina, including 488 in Mecklenburg County, 170 in Wake County and 157 in Durham County. No other North Carolina county has 50 or more children.
Kevin Howell, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said the federal government has provided some additional information about the children since McCrory complained in August.
“This information, while piecemeal, has provided some additional assurances,” Howell said in an email. “We are still hoping to get additional information, such as how follow-up care is being assured or what is the Obama Administration’s plan to ensure the sponsors maintain appropriate contacts with our legal system.”
While their cases go through the court system, their sponsors have been trying to get them enrolled in school. In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students are guaranteed the right to attend public schools regardless of their immigration status.
The Wake and Charlotte-Mecklenburg school systems were praised for helping the unaccompanied minors register quickly by Mark Bowers, an immigration attorney for Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, and Matt Ellinwood, an attorney for the N.C. Justice Center.
‘Value the diversity’
Lisa Luten, a Wake schools’ spokeswoman, pointed to the work of the district’s Center for International Enrollment in helping these students.
“They are dedicated to helping our international families who are moving or relocating to our school system,” she said. “We value the diversity in our school system.”
But Bowers said students in other districts across the state have had problems registering because schools are requiring items such as Social Security numbers, certified birth certificates or notarized affidavits from their parents. The groups who have complained to the federal government don’t have a precise number, but Bowers and Ellinwood said they are convinced the problems are real.
“Counties across North Carolina were either denying entry or putting up significant obstacles in enrolling,” he said. “They might enroll but it could take months and months.”
Ellinwood said that school districts shouldn’t force these children to lose months of schooling by making them present all their required paperwork before they can enroll.
“It would be far worse to have many children who are living in our community who are unable to go to school than to have them in school,” he said.
But Mehlman, of FAIR, pointed to a report by his group that estimates it could annually cost $761.4 million nationally and $20.9 million in North Carolina to provide a public education to all the relocated students. He said it forces governments to raise taxes or to spread existing resources more thinly.
“This is a huge cost to our state,” said Ron Woodard, director of N.C. LISTEN, which advocates for more controls on immigration. “Do you imagine what we could do with the money with disadvantaged counties being able to provide services to our poor citizens?”