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“My mom doesn’t have papers…”: A daily drama on Long Island?

Update: July 2010:
An excellent report by the NYCLU, with link to a list of some of the offending school districts. If your school district is one of them, think about speaking out to your school board. Be kind to the disadvantaged young people in your community.

Trees grace an elementary schoolKimberly writes:

You may have heard the story of 7-year-old Daisy Cuevas of Maryland. American Visa Bureau reports, “Daisy, a US citizen by birth, innocently placed her undocumented Peruvian parents in the spotlight during a visit by US First Lady Michelle Obama’s to her elementary school in Silver Spring, Maryland…The family later went into hiding, fearful of being deported…”

I am heartened that many people have been able to see the tragedy in Daisy’s situation. Yes, when there are strident and unfair laws, when people can be deported for merely going about their lives in a new country, then an innocent child could bring the weight of the justice system down on her parents. The words of a child, uttered in her own classroom, could invoke such devastation. Also, the tragedy comes to light for the parents, who want to educate their children, but are forced to live in fear of their status, and so might make decisions to not accept the help and education themselves and their children deserve. Imagine living in a world of constant fear of government reprisal and deportation? And, imagine that that fear is only heightened by being discriminated against by your neighbors and the bigger society?

This kind of school tragedy happens on Long Island, New York everyday, inside our suburban school districts. There are some people — inside the school system, and in the community — who are so concerned about taxes, or are so prejudiced against immigrants, that they make it difficult for students such as Daisy, and for people like Daisy’s parents.

I once worked within the system of advocating for student rights. I saw firsthand how the system works. As you may have guessed, and your intuition may have told you, in the United States, all children have a right to be educated at public school. Just think for a minute if we only educated children who were citizens. Or, if children were not allowed at school if their parents were not citizens. Would we have 7-year-old’s from South America wandering the street, kept in a separate class of young people who don’t deserve to learn to read and write? Would we screen each child as they apply at school? Would your child — if they had a tan, or black hair and brown eyes — be scrutinized by an ICE immigration agent when they went to visit kindergarten on the first day?

So, it is very clear law in the United States that all children are allowed at school. All children have a right to be educated. That includes children of immigrants, immigrant children, and, of course, children from homeless families.

Though, because there is so much prejudiced against immigrants, the directive to educate all children is not always carried out. And, school districts often burden and interrogate undocumented immigrant families, as well as citizen immigrant families, just to let them in the door.

Each school district in New York State is allowed to have their own process and forms for entering school. And, some of the districts – especially the very “white” districts – have forms that would scare off anyone from applying. They have reams of papers. They put in forms that you might need if you are a renter, or if you are a new immigrant. They put in forms to trick you into giving them information that they can use against you to deny your child’s application.

Remember the school lawyer scandal in Long Island? Those lawyers were able to be so highly paid, and to get so many concessions, because they were doing dirty business for the school districts. Many of those lawyers were helping school districts spin trails to keep immigrant students out of school (and also, on a separate note, to keep the districts from having to spend adequate funds educating students with disabilities.)

I have seen a scenario where a school district lawyer — someone trained in the laws, who is a professional, who most people wouldn’t talk to without their own lawyer — tried to coach, advise, and ask leading questions of a guardian trying to get her student into a school. When you put immigrants into situations like this, they are bound to be frightened, thwarted, and denied their rights. But, everyday, school districts use forms and strategies their expensive lawyers made up, and use legal maneuvers and challenges, to deny some students like Daisy the right to be educated.

A school district can stall or entirely block a child from attending school by: Casting doubt on which district a student’s residence is in — which is an especially easy trick for the district when parents are split up and there are custody issues; Scaring parents away from applying by wrongly demanding an affidavit from a landlord to prove residency; Claiming that the student only came here to learn to speak English (ie: this happens a lot when an older student is forced to come here and live with relatives because their parents are poor); and other measures such as these.

If you care about Daisy Cuevas, you might check things out at your own school district.

Are there ICE immigration agents hovering around the registration office at your school district? Or, are there signs threatening investigation by ICE at the registration office? (I believe at least one Long Island school district had such signs.)

Ask for a packet of student application forms from your school district. Are the instructions impossible to understand? Do they lead the applicant to think they must file an affidavit from their landlord? (And, what immigrant, living in an apartment known as an “illegal apartment” is going to feel comfortable getting a letter from their landlord? And, what landlord, who skipped telling the town about their rental zoning, is going to fill out such an affidavit?)

If you can let Daisy Cuevas’s life matter to you, perhaps you can let the lives of the immigrants in your own neighborhood matter to you. If you can care about the burdened lives of immigrant families, perhaps you could make sure that your own school district — which you help fund, and where you are a member of the community — is not oppressing people like Daisy, and putting other young children in the path of Homeland Security.

If you are interested in learning more about school districts and their relation to homeless families and immigrant families, please check with your local school district, do some research on-line, and/or look over the material below.

Immigrant Student Rights
Background and Resources about education and immigration

informal advice from citizen Kimberly Wilder
(Kimberly is not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice)

Places to go for information, research and/or help:

Education Rights information in Spanish:
En Espanol –   http://www.nichcy.org

NY State Ed Dept web-site: www.nysed.gov

Research on Education Law: http://www.wrightslaw.com

Parent friendly resource: http://idea.ed.gov

A network, includes referral list for local attorneys and education advocates:
www.copaa.org Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates

Be referred to help on educational law matters
Long Island, New York:

Nassau/Suffolk Law Services (631) 232-2400

Nassau Long Island Advocacy Center: (516) 248-2222

Suffolk Long Island Advocacy Center: (631) 234-0467

Rights of families with temporary housing situations and/or homelessness:
Sarah Benjamin at Eastern Suffolk BOCES: (631) 727-0501

Some summary thoughts:

1. When you communicate with a school, you should do so in writing. Schools are institutions which have legal requirements. Schools will take you more seriously, and be required to answer you, when you create a paper trail.

2. Schools are required to communicate with a family in the family’s language. That means that a family who speaks Spanish may write letters to the school in Spanish, and the school will have to find someone to understand the letter and respond in Spanish.

3. It is not required to get a letter from a landlord to attend a school. The school must accept other proof.

4. It is not required to have legal custody of a child for them to go to school in the district that a non-parent has custody of the child. A custodial guardian may register a child in school, with the proper papers, if they meet certain requirements. (See the State Board of Education web-site above, or seek an “education advocate.”)

Families should realize that a school is not simply a wonderful, altruistic place filled of people who want the best for their child. Yes, there are good teachers and good people at schools who wish to serve children and their families. But, a school can also be entangled by: community problems such as prejudice; pressures to control the budget for tax-payers; fears of lawsuits; and people who do not even support public education, but find themselves on school boards or in administrations. School districts have lawyers! It is imperative that parents PUT THINGS IN WRITING to schools. So many parents lose time and lose their rights, because they ask the school questions verbally, that if put in writing would force the school to take actions to help children.

Some basic rights that often get overlooked in the school:

~Schools are REQUIRED to communicate with parents in the parents language of origin. Parents can write letters to the school in Spanish and it is the school’s job to answer the letter, in Spanish.

This is especially important when student’s receive suspensions or have Superintendent’s Hearings for discipline. Or, special education meetings. The school must provide an interpreter IF THE PARENT KNOWS to demand it.

It might be good for supportive organizations to consider the following: Making sure that the registration office in area school districts have registration packets in Spanish. Make sure that when people go to enroll in Spanish, a translator is made available. Make sure that students who are suspended for 5 days or more, can have a Superintendent’s Hearing, where a translator must be available (and parents should seriously consider bringing an attorney.)

~When a family registers, school districts often wrongfully state that the family needs a letter from their landlord. This is absolutely wrong. The law specifically states that schools must be FLEXIBLE in the documentation they accept. So, often, an affidavit from the parent themselves, saying where they live, is enough.

~School districts often wrongfully tell people that they need “legal custody” in order to enroll a niece, nephew, grandchild or friend’s child in school. This is absolutely wrong. It is well settled law that the appointment of legal guardianship is not required for school attendance. Many families get turned away at registration offices with this wrong info. Some go to the court and learn that legal custody takes about 6 months. But, the child does not need that legal document, and may attend school if the person caring for them and registering them is the custodial guardian.

~A big mistake many parents make, when a parent has an economic hardship or other major reason, that the parent needs to have a child live with and attend school in the area of a family member, a parent will often write a note or affidavit saying they give “temporary custody” to that relative. If you use the word temporary custody to a school district, it will be an excuse for them to reject the child’s registration. It is more accurate and effective to say that the child will live with the relative “indefinitely.”

This information is from a concerned citizen who is not an attorney. You should use the web-sites listed to study details for yourself. And, ideally, consider seeking the advice of a trained education advocate (ie: not just a “parent advocate”, which is a different position) to understand your educational rights, or an attorney if you need to be represented.


Video: Nadia Marin-Molina of Workplace Project and Kimberly Wilder of PeaceSmiths, Inc., two citizen activists, share ideas, information, and resources which parents can use to assert their rights at school.


One Response

  1. […] Related blog post from onthewilderside: “My mom doesn’t have papers…”: A daily drama on Long Island? […]

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