ACLU sues 12 NJ school districts for allegedly anti-immigrant policies

The American Civil Liberties Union in New Jersey filed lawsuits on Thursday against 12 school districts or schools, alleging that they ask for IDs that require Social Security numbers or valid immigration status to enroll children, in violation of state law.

Some districts named in the suit, including Watchung Hills Regional High School District in Somerset County, pushed back immediately, saying that they do not base enrollment decisions on immigration status.

"The Watchung Hills Regional School District does not condition entry into our District based upon a student's or parent's immigration/visa status or any other discriminatory reason," Superintendent Elizabeth Jewett said in a statement.

The lawsuit said the alleged stated policies "are particularly disturbing in light of the climate of fear in immigrant communities."

"New Jersey's state Constitution calls for free public education, and that applies to every single child — no exceptions," ACLU-NJ staff attorney Elyla Huertas said in a statement.

Among the districts named in the suit are Northern Valley Regional High School District in Bergen County; Bellmawr School District, Sterling Regional High School District and Winslow Township School District in Camden County; East Orange Community Charter School in Essex County; West New York School District in Hudson County.

Also named in the lawsuit are: Sea Girt School District in Monmouth County; Harding Township School District in Morris County; Watchung Hills Regional High School District in Somerset County; Montague School District in Sussex County; Cranford School District in Union County; and Allamuchy School District in Warren County.

Emailed requests for comment from many superintendents or other district officials were not immediately returned after business hours Thursday.

Northern Valley schools Superintendent James Santana in an email called the claims in the lawsuit "misleading," that the district complies with all state and federal regulations, and that "we are going to vigorously defend ourselves against these baseless charges."

The ACLU said in the lawsuit that the district according to its website requires parents to prove residency before enrolling children in the district, and that parents must provide a New Jersey drivers' license or identification, and "it is not possible for immigrants who lack Social Security numbers or a valid immigration status to obtain such identification."

Sea Girt schools Superintendent Rich Papera said in an email that the district's policy was updated in 2014 but old documents that did not reflect the new policy had remained on its website.

"As of this morning, we removed the misleading and inaccurate documents from the website that had not been updated to match the Policy and Regulation," Papera said. He said the current school policy is that immigration and visa status does not affect eligibility for enrollment.

Santana said the Northern Valley is reviewing all of its webpages. Jewett, of the Watchung Hills Regional School District, also said the district was reviewing all of its enrollment forms, and emphasized that "we have never denied admission to a student based upon immigration/visa status or based upon the failure of a family to produce a particular form of documentation as proof of residency."

The ACLU says that state law as well as case law settled in 1982 forbids school districts from denying education to public school students based on immigration status of children or their parents. The group has sued other districts in the past over the issue.

The ACLU said there are other districts in the state that raises its concerns, and called on all districts in the state "to remove unlawful barriers from their registration forms."

Matthew Spelker, superintendent of the Harding Township School District, said in an email that the district "does not admit or deny pupils admission to our district based upon immigration or visa status, nor do our enrollment forms suggest anything to the contrary."

Huertas said in a phone interview Thursday evening that she's glad that some districts were reviewing their websites, because even if the policies are not being enforced old information or forms can dissuade parents from enrolling children.

"Just having these policies posted is in and of itself problematic, because it can have a chilling effect," she said.