Civil rights lawyers have identified 75 California school districts, including five in the Sacramento region, that they believe may deter immigrant families from enrolling their children by asking for information such as Social Security numbers and citizenship status.
California Rural Legal Assistance and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area called on state Attorney General Xavier Becerra to investigate the 75 districts’ enrollment practices. Students have “clear legal protections” to attend school, the report said, but they could be “unlawfully discouraged” from doing so when asked for information related to citizenship status.
Among Sacramento area districts cited in the report, two asked for Social Security numbers. Three others asked students if they are U.S. citizens and, for those who are not, to name their countries of origin.
The lawyers examined registration forms on the school districts’ websites and, in some cases, found the requests for information were in violation of the districts’ own board policies. In some instances, the districts sought documentation such as birth certificates, the report showed.
Cynthia L. Rice, director of litigation for CRLA, said despite clear constitutional protections of the students’ right to attend school, “we want to make sure there isn’t anything that can be perceived to interfere with that right.”
Local superintendents reached this week by The Sacramento Bee said they would immediately quit the practice, had done so or will likely propose abandoning the registration form and updating it.
“Truthfully, it’s not who we are and not what we believe,” said Superintendent Marcy Guthrie with the Mother Lode Union School District. She was flabbergasted to learn that her district had landed in the lawyers’ report showing that students entering her district were asked to share their citizenship status. “I just hung up with the principal of our elementary school. We’ve already pulled (the forms) down from the website. We’re making it right.”
The district is small, with just 1,100 students at an elementary and a middle school that serves students from El Dorado, Diamond Springs and Placerville.
The immigration issue gained increased significance after President Donald Trump was elected and vowed strict immigration enforcement this year.
California in particular has tried to reassure families fearful of deportation that their children will be safe at schools. Many districts have vowed to avoid collecting citizenship information and said they will not volunteer student data to federal authorities.
In December, state schools chief Tom Torlakson urged districts statewide to declare themselves safe havens for immigrant students, offering the Sacramento City Unified sanctuary declaration as a model. He cited a 1984 Supreme Court decision that requires all schools to enroll eligible children regardless of immigration status.
In February, the California School Boards Association issued legal guidance that districts should not ask for students’ citizenship status or request visas, passports or Social Security numbers upon enrollment.
The civil rights attorneys identified two other Sacramento area school districts that ask for citizenship status: Buckeye Union School District with about 5,200 students and River Delta Unified School District with close to 2,000 students.
Don Beno, superintendent of the River Delta Unified School District in Rio Vista, said he has had multiple discussions with principals about the law and what is legal. It was “purely an oversight” that the registration form was left on the district’s website, he said Tuesday. The form was removed from the website that day.
“The form that was online is basically outdated,” Beno said. “It’s now been changed to reflect current laws.” He said the district doesn’t track data on immigration status.
Buckeye Superintendent David Roth was out of the office early this week and could not immediately respond to Bee inquiries, his secretary said.
The coalition identified two other Sacramento area districts that seek students’ Social Security numbers: Arcohe Union School District, which has a lone elementary school in Herald with about 400 students, and the Robla School District, which serves about 2,200 students in the city of Sacramento.
“Your question caused me to look into what we do with them,” said Ruben Reyes, superintendent for the Robla district. He said Social Security numbers can simplify the district’s effort to engage social service agencies on behalf of a student or family. “Those processes can be simplified if we have a Social Security number on hand,” Reyes said.
He said the district does not enter the numbers into its student data system. “And most families do not actually provide the Social Security number,” he said. “There’s no penalty. If it’s left off, we don’t follow up.”
“Actually,” he added, “this question has caused us to see if this is something we should revisit. I think we will revisit it.”
Last month, Reyes sent families a letter outlining students’ rights and details on immigration rules and offering assurances that the district would neither ask for nor volunteer a student’s immigration status.
In a related matter, Sacramento City Unified on Wednesday joined other school districts and teachers unions in a legal brief supporting San Francisco’s efforts to maintain federal funds for sanctuary jurisdictions.
The schools’ friend-of-the-court filing in U.S. District Court in San Francisco backs the city’s January lawsuit challenging President Donald Trump’s executive order threatening to withhold federal funds for “sanctuary jurisdictions.”
The amicus brief, like another one filed in federal court in Santa Clara County, complains the presidential order impedes districts’ efforts to educate all students and deters students from attending class because they fear deportation.