How to Support Immigrant Students and Families: Strategies for Schools and Early Childhood Programs

Immigrant Students' Legal Rights: An Overview

Learn about immigrant students' rights, school districts' obligations to protect those rights, and resources that districts have developed to share information about those rights with the public.

These strategies are part of the Colorín Colorado resource guide, How to Support Immigrant Students and Families: Strategies for Schools and Early Childhood Programs.

We’ve heard from educators who would like to know what steps they can take to ensure that front office staff are up-to-date about relevant policies. This has been an ongoing effort of ours and we continue to make sure all of our schools are aware of our efforts. I meet periodically with our principals on this issue and others to coordinate our efforts.  It is expected that they are keeping their staff informed.

Scott Kizner, Superintendent of Stafford County Public Schools (former Superintendent of Harrisonburg Public Schools)


All students have the right to a free, public K-12 education, regardless of their immigration status or that of their parents. This includes access to services and programs such as free- and reduced-priced meals, English-language development classes, special education, and school activities. The American Federation of Teachers produced a fact sheet (2017) explaining:


Download PDF versions:

The 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe ruled that undocumented students have a constitutional right to receive a free, public K-12 education. All students, regardless of their citizenship or residency status, are entitled to attend school. School districts that either prohibit or discourage students from enrolling in schools because they or their parents are undocumented immigrants may be in violation of federal law and the Equal Protection Clause (of the Fourteenth Amendment) to the U.S. Constitution...Schools cannot bar a student from enrolling because the student lacks a birth certificate or social security number or has a record that indicates a foreign place of birth. (p. 1)

Students’ civil rights

In addition, a federal guide on supporting undocumented students published in 2015 notes:

To comply with these Federal civil rights laws, such as Titles IV and VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as the mandates of the Supreme Court, school districts must ensure that they do not discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin, and that students are not barred from enrolling in public schools at the elementary and secondary level on the basis of their own citizenship or immigration status or that of their parents or guardians.  (U.S. Department of Education, 2015, p. 7)

The rights of English language learners

In addition to the rights described above, English language learners (ELLs) and their parents have specific rights described in these resources from the U.S. Department of Education:

You can also learn more in this article about landmark court rulings regarding ELLs by Dr. Wayne E. Wright at Purdue University.

English language learners and special education

English language learners identified with special education needs also have the right to receive both language services and special education services, and their parents have the right to receive information about evaluations, IEPs, support services, and other related topics in their home language. Immigration status does not impact students' or parents' right to access these services.

You can learn more about this topic in the following:

Recommended videos 

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Ensure all staff understand immigrant students' rights

Why this matters

Students will come into contact with a variety of staff and personnel throughout the school. All of these adults have an obligation to protect students' privacy and access to an education. Violations of those rights could not only have an impact on the educational climate and cause a chilling effect on attendance or enrollment, but could also result in legal action.

Note:  For additional information on early childhood settings, see our section on young children in immigrant families.

Tips for getting started

  • Use the resources in this section to become more familiar with these laws.
  • Consult with district officials or community partners on questions you have.
  • Review forms and policies to see which may need to be updated (see related recommendations in the following strategy).
  • Make sure you and your staff have up-to-date information on students’ civil rights and educators’ legal obligations to protect those rights.
  • Provide professional development and training as needed.

Keeping staff well-informed

Ensure that all K-12 school staff understand that:

  • immigration status has no bearing on a student’s right to:

◦ enroll in elementary, middle, or high school
◦ receive school services, such as free- and reduced-priced meals, special education, or ESL classes
◦ participate in activities, such as field trips
◦ receive medical treatment

  • immigration status should not be requested, shared, or reported in public or private
  • staff should not tolerate bullying by other students or adults in the building
  • violations will not be tolerated and will be grounds for disciplinary action.

Who needs to know this information?

In addition, it is critical to underscore that these guidelines apply to all staff, including:

  • administrators, teachers, and paraprofessionals
  • front office staff and counselors
  • janitorial, nursing, bussing, and cafeteria staff
  • substitute teachers and school resource officers/security personnel.

Extra-curricular activities and field trips

  • Sports participation: Some independent athletic associations throughout the country require certain types of documentation from students who wish to participate on a high school athletic team, such as a social security number. You can read more about these policies, as well as one high school's creative approach to starting a soccer league for immigrant students who were determined to play, in this article from The Hechinger Report, Immigrant Students Find Hope in Soccer, But Some States Won't Let Them Play.
  • Field trips: If there are any questions about required documentation for a school field trip, consult with district leaders and attorneys as needed. A principal in Maryland was placed on leave after sending home a bilingual notification related to a trip to the White House stating, "If a scholar is not classified as a U.S. Citizen, they will not be able to attend the field trip." While there were requirements for documentation for the White House visit, the district released a statement saying it "would not have approved any form or activity that 'excluded students based on citizenship, race/ethnicity, sexuality, religion or ability.'" 


Recommended resources

Fact sheets and briefs

Let Us Learn: FAQs for educators

Another useful resource is the FAQs for Educators from Let Us Learn: Schools for Every Child entitled "How does a child's immigration status affect their enrollment in school?" It addresses:

  • students' rights to a K-12 public education
  • extracurricular activities and free- and reduced-price meals
  • information/documents that can and cannot be requested during school enrollment.

Note: Let Us Learn, an initiative of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, sent letters to all state attorneys general in the Fall of 2017 reminding them that all students have the right to enroll in K-12 public schools.

Recommended videos 

Enrolling ELL and immigrant students: Attorney Roger Rosenthal

Why schools shouldn't ask about immigration status


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Review and update enrollment policies and forms

Why this matters

As explained in our information on the legal rights of immigrant students at the beginning of this article, schools are not permitted to (a) ask about immigration status for purposes of enrollment or (b) ask any questions that would dissuade immigrant students or families from enrolling or have any kind of chilling effect. If families are asked for such information, they may be concerned that the information could be shared with an immigration enforcement agency. As a result, schools may need to review their registration forms. For example, a recent audit in California school districts found that at least 75 districts were asking about immigration status in the enrollment forms (Californians Together, 2017).

It is critical that front office staff have accurate information about enrolling immigrant students. They will not only set the tone for families' experience, but will have significant influence on whether the families feel comfortable sharing personal information – or even enroll at the school at all.

Tips for getting started

  • Review registration forms, home language surveys, or other forms related to school services/activities. Look for and remove any mention of immigration status.
  • Become familiar with alternate documents permitted for school enrollment, including paperwork related to residence in the district, proof of age, and guardianship. If you are uncertain about what is required, check with administrators or the district's legal office.
  • Explain to families what their rights are under federal privacy laws, detailed in the next section on protecting student privacy.
  • Be mindful of the language used on other school forms, such as report cards or other family correspondence. Terms like "citizenship grade" or "legal student absences" can create fear and confusion among immigrant families (Mangual Figueroa, 2017).

Social security numbers

Districts should avoid asking for social security numbers; if they do, they must explain:

  • how the social security number will be used and why the district is requesting it (CSBA, 2017)
  • that providing the number is voluntary
  • what kinds of paperwork will be accepted instead
  • that not providing a social security number will not bar students from enrolling in/attending school.

"Public charge" question: Free- and reduced-price meal applications

Note: Schools are receiving questions about whether free- and reduced-price meal enrollment will be counted against a green card application as part of the proposed “public charge” rules. It will not. You can read more about these proposed rule changes in this section of our guide.

Recommended resources

Recommended videos 

Enrollment questions on Social Security numbers, birth certificates, and more: Attorney Roger Rosenthal

Protect student privacy

Why this matters

Students have certain legal privacy protections regardless of immigration status. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records for all students. The American Federation of Teachers notes that, "Under FERPA, schools are prohibited, without parental consent, from providing information from a student's file to federal immigration agents if the information would potentially expose a student's immigration status."

According to Illinois Legal Aid Online:

FERPA does not allow schools to turn over a student’s file to federal immigration agents. The school can turn the file over if a parent consents and gives them permission or if the information does not contain the student’s immigration status. School officials are non-reporters. They are not required to report undocumented immigrants.

Note: The California School Boards Association shares the following reminder, "School leaders should review with legal counsel any request for student information submitted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement" (p. 4).

Tips for getting started

  • Review these regulations and your own school policies to see if any changes are needed.
  • Determine if there are other privacy policies that should be reflected in school policy/procedures at the district, city, county, or state level.
  • Ensure that all staff have updated information regarding student privacy laws, particularly those who are working on student enrollment.

Recommended resources

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Find out what resources your district and state have about serving immigrant students

Why this matters

The challenges that immigrant students currently face speak to the importance of creating an environment in which (a) students and families feel welcome and comfortable in the educational setting and (b) all leaders and staff members understand students' rights and their obligations in protecting those rights.

District, school, and early childhood program leaders have addressed these issues in a variety of ways within (and beyond) their communities. Some leaders have focused on internal communication with staff, while others have made public statements regarding their immigrant students.  Some districts that have such guidelines or resolutions have called themselves "sanctuary districts," "safe zones," or "safe havens."

These statements vary in content, length, scope, and method of delivery. Some leaders have collaborated with their school boards to draft resolutions or formal statements supporting all students' access to education. These statements have been delivered in writing or in person through press conferences, events, or interviews with local media in families' languages. 

Common themes in this communication include:

  • a welcoming message affirming the value of immigrant families to the community
  • an affirmation of all students' right to a free, public education, as well as their civil rights, regardless of immigration status
  • a reminder of existing policies that address discrimination, bullying, and bias
  • an explanation of steps for protecting student and family privacy
  • clarification of policies related to immigration and law enforcement activity
  • information on new or updated policies, such as the Los Angeles school board's directive to the superintendent to "develop a plan within 90 days that will train teachers, administrators and other staff on how to quickly respond to immigration enforcement agents"
  • messages that try to prevent drops in enrollment or attendance due to family concerns.

These statements can serve as an important step in creating a climate of respect and trust for immigrant students, families, and staff members while also reiterating districts' legal obligations towards students and families.

The California School Board Association (2017) notes that,

While these resolutions do not provide further or greater legal protection for students than already exists in the law, they do help school districts utilize their lawful discretion to establish policies and procedures to ensure that the district is providing equal access to public education to all students and to ensure the safety and security of its students attending school to the best of its ability. They also direct staff how to respond to potential immigration enforcement activities by ICE or other immigration enforcement officers or agents. (p. 5)

The role of states

States also have an important role to play in communicating related state and federal laws. For example, New York State has published a section on its website titled Information Regarding Recent Immigration-Related Actions, available in more than two dozen languages, as well as guidance related to the enrollment of undocumented and unaccompanied youth.

California has published multiple documents clarifying existing rules and also has gone beyond what previously existed to create new policies, guidelines, and models for districts to use as they determine their policies at the local level.

In addition, California passed a statewide law, AB 699, increasing protections for immigrant students. You can see fact sheets and infographics about the law in English and Spanish here and also from the Immigration Legal Resource Center.  The following documents were published in California as well:

Learn more from Informed Immigrants’ section on Understanding state/local immigration-related policies.

Tips for getting started

  • Find out what kinds of resources, documents, and statements your district and state already have available and if those resources are available in multiple languages.
  • Keep in mind that:

◦ school districts are legally obligated to share information in a language that families understand (see multilingual versions of district statements in the "Recommended resources" below).
◦ school and district leaders may not realize the extent to which immigration policies are impacting families locally, as seen in this article written for Colorín Colorado. Helping leaders better understand the student population is an area in which educators working with ELLs and immigrant students can have a significant impact.
◦ many of these strategies are appropriate for early childhood settings as well.

  • In school districts that have refrained from making a formal statement about immigration-related policies, educators might find it helpful to communicate the following kinds of information to decision-makers:

◦ examples from other schools or districts, such as statements of support, resolutions, and other documents
◦ information on the impact of immigration policies on local students
◦ related policies at the district, city, county, or state level that might impact immigrant students.

How to frame the issue

Consider framing these issues in terms of student well-being and learning as a helpful starting point. ELL administrator Kristina Robertson notes,

As a public leader you always worry about the consequences of a decision, a statement, or an action and you want to examine issues from multiple perspectives. Who might gain from a decision? Who might be harmed? As we discussed our district support, we recognized that the heart of the matter was keeping students safe and supporting their continued learning. This meant that we needed to measure our actions by how they related to supporting the students’ learning and social-emotional well-being. This has been helpful in empowering leaders as they make decisions in response to new situations.  

Recommended resources

The following list shares a sample of documents published by districts around the country.

School district resources: FAQs and guides

School district resources: Public statements and resolutions on serving immigrant students

Related resources

Related news items

Recommended videos 





See our complete reference list for works cited in this article.

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