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Wednesday, May 22, 2024 | Back issues
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ACLU Sues Schools for Immigrant Discrimination

NEWARK (CN) - Tired of playing a "perpetual game of whack-a-mole with New Jersey School Districts," the ACLU of New Jersey sued five schools for discriminating against immigrant students.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey filed five separate civil lawsuits against four school districts and a charter school that had prevented immigrant students from enrolling by requiring identification that those without Social Security numbers or valid immigration status cannot obtain.

Jamesburg School District superintendent Brian Betze denied the ACLU's claims of discrimination in his district. "We don't use or implement any practices that are unconstitutional," Betze said in a phone interview.

He cited a "clerical error" during registration that may have made it seem like the district mandated New Jersey-issued identification, but he said the school "never ever used that."

Betze also noted that new families frequently used non-local ID when registering.

Betze said that the Jamesburg School District is fixing the clerical error that caused the misunderstanding, emphasizing that it could resolve the issue without litigation.

School districts that require Social Security numbers or a valid immigration status deny an education to students with parents who are undocumented and discourage immigrants from enrolling their children in those districts, the ACLU claims in its lawsuit.

"The ACLU of New Jersey can't play a perpetual game of whack-a-mole with New Jersey school districts, and we shouldn't have to," said Alexander Shalom, the ACLU-NJ senior staff attorney who filed the lawsuits. "It's the job of the Department of Education to make sure New Jersey school districts are following the Constitution, and they must take that duty seriously. The law is clear: schools cannot discriminate, and they should be held accountable when they do."

The five lawsuits filed Tuesday claim these school districts' practices violate the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbids a state from "deny[ing] to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

In addition, the 1982 Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe forbids school districts from excluding children from enrolling based on immigration status.

ACLU-NJ public policy director Ari Rosmarin shamed New Jersey state leadership for not stepping in. "If the DOE [Department of Education] won't act, we will," Rosmarin said in a statement. "We cannot stand quietly by and let districts discriminate. The Christie administration needs to do its job and take action to stop this unlawful, harmful discrimination."

The ACLU of New Jersey lawsuits each noted that the two requirements that New Jersey families must meet when attempting to enroll a child in public school are proof of age and proof of in-district residency.

The ACLU says Spotswood School District in Middlesex County and Port Republic School District in Atlantic County both required driver's licenses from parents enrolling their children. Jamesburg School District in Middlesex County required a New Jersey-issued driver's license. Fair Lawn School District in Bergen County required driver's licenses and automobile registration, while Jersey City Global Charter School in Hudson County required "State ID" for enrollment, according to the ACLU.

The lawsuits point out that to get a New Jersey driver's license, a person needs to satisfy a six-point requirement verification, which includes proof of at least one primary document, at least one secondary document, a verifiable Social Security number or a valid immigration status, and proof of address.

According to Census Bureau data, more than 1.2 million immigrant workers comprised 27.4% of the state's workforce in 2013.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey is represented by Alexander Shalom of the ACLU-NJ Foundation in Newark, New Jersey.

Spotswood, Port Republic, Fairlawn, and Jersey City Global Charter did not immediately comment on the lawsuits.

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