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Immigrant student rights and education laws

There are laws that protect all student rights in the USA. Learn about the rights of immigrant students, including English language support and free expression. Find out how to report bullying and discrimination.


Right to public education 

All children have the right to receive free public education to get a high school diploma in the United States. This includes elementary and secondary schooling. Everyone has the right to attend public schools, regardless of immigration status. 

The right to public education also comes with requirements:

  • Parents and guardians are responsible for enrolling their children in public or private schools. 
  • All children have to attend school for a certain number of years. Most states require children between 5 and 16 years old to go to school.
  • State laws set the requirements for when students can drop out of school. In most cases, students must be at least 16 years old and have permission to stop attending school. 
The right to education, regardless of immigration status, does not extend to students applying to college or university. There are no laws that say DACA or undocumented students can not attend college but some schools may deny admission. Learn more.

Right to equal opportunity 

State and local schools are required to give students equal access to public education.

  • Federal law requires schools to provide students an equal chance to succeed in school, regardless of their race, ethnicity, color, national origin, religion, sex, immigration status, or family income. 
  • Schools must provide the same opportunities for all students in terms of classes, school activities, sports, financial aid, health benefits, and employment.
  • Schools must make reasonable changes to classes and activities to accommodate students with different needs. These include language skills, disabilities, gender identities, and religion.
  • Students with disabilities have the right to special education and related services. This can include physical therapy, speech-language therapy, a sign-language interpreter, a notetaker, readers, special computer equipment, and extra time to take a test. 
  • Parents can contest the placement of their child in certain programs or levels of learning.

English language support 

Students who do not speak English have the right to free language assistance. Schools must identify students who need language support. English learner students can sign up for English language classes and get bilingual resources. Parents can also request an interpreter or translated materials.   

Protection from discrimination

Discrimination is the unfair treatment of people based on their actual or perceived characteristics. It can take place in many areas of education, including:

  • admission and enrollment
  • assignments and activities
  • financial aid
  • discipline 

Discrimination can take many forms. It can include:

  • Name-calling and insults
  • Verbal threats or physical harm
  • Exclusion from activities  
  • Unequal treatment of students

Public schools, colleges, and universities cannot discriminate against students, parents and guardians, employees, and applicants based on their:

  • Race, color, national origin, ethnicity, or ancestry
  • Language ability  
  • Sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity  
  • Disability (physical or mental impairment)
  • Pregnancy, marital status, or having children
  • Immigration status 
  • Economic status
  • Housing situation    
  • Religion 
  • Age 

Teachers, administrators, and students cannot target, harass, or profile specific groups of people based on these characteristics.

Schools must provide access to public education for students who are experiencing homelessness. Students who do not have a permanent home can enroll in school even if they cannot provide the required documents, such as proof of residence.

Public schools are required to investigate reported discrimination and take steps to end it, address its effects, and prevent it from happening again.

Right to free expression

Students have the right to express themselves at school as long as it doesn’t break school policies or disrupt school activities. This includes speaking, writing, or expressing yourself through symbolic messages. 

Students have the right to express and practice their faith at school. Students can observe religious activities such as praying in school in a non-disruptive environment. Students are free to talk about religious topics. Schools must excuse students from school to celebrate religious holidays.

Public school dress codes cannot prevent students from expressing their beliefs. Students have the right to wear religious clothing, including headscarves, turbans, and yarmulkes. Students can wear clothing that matches their gender identity. School dress code policies can only prohibit certain clothing if it is considered disruptive or distracting.

Public schools cannot promote religious beliefs or practices, including prayers in school or at school activities. 

Students have the right to remain silent and seated during the Pledge of Allegiance. 

Right to privacy

Students have the right to privacy inside and outside of school. 

Schools cannot:

  • Ask about a student’s immigration status, including questions about their place of birth, birth certificate, or social security number. 
  • Disclose students’ personal information to unauthorized third parties without the permission of the student or their parent or guardian. 
  • Disclose students’ education records, without the permission of the student’s parent or guardian. 
  • Release student records to ICE officials without consent or a warrant. 

School staff and police can search school property, including student lockers and desks if they have a reasonable suspicion that a student broke a rule. However, school staff and police cannot search students’ personal belongings, including backpacks and phones, without the student’s permission or a warrant. 

Police and ICE at school

Students have specific rights when it comes to police and immigration officials. 

Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) is prohibited at schools that are considered sensitive locations. This includes preschools, primary schools, secondary schools, colleges and universities, and other institutions of learning. ICE and CBP are generally not allowed to arrest, interview, search, or monitor immigrants at a school, school bus stop, or school activities. 

School officials cannot assist immigration officers in removing immigrant students, including those with undocumented status, from school. Schools must not allow immigration enforcement inside schools unless they have a judicial warrant signed by a judge. In cases where immigration authorities detain a student, the school district must immediately notify the student’s parents or guardians. 

School police can stop, question, and search students at school if they suspect they are breaking any laws or school rules. They have the right to remain silent and should not answer any questions without first talking to a parent, guardian, or lawyer. 

School police cannot use excessive force against students. 

School police cannot search a student, their backpack, phone, or other property without permission or a warrant. Police may be able to search their locker if it is considered school property.

School police can arrest a student if they have evidence they likely committed a crime. If your child is detained or arrested, make sure they know to ask to speak to a lawyer. Do not answer any questions or sign any documents without talking to a lawyer. 

Protection from bullying 

Bullying is verbal or physical acts that harass, intimidate or harm other students. Threats, teasing, intimidation, stalking, physical violence, humiliation, and theft are all forms of bullying. Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place online. 

Bullying is not allowed in schools. States have different laws prohibiting bullying in schools and online. Schools are required to have policies on how they will prevent bullying and address acts of bullying. 

School teachers and administrators have to take steps to protect students from bullying and harassment and resolve any incidents, particularly when it involves discrimination. Learn more at www.stopbullying.gov

Speak up for your child and report violations 

You have the right to speak up for your child’s needs. If they are having problems at school or with school work, you can speak to their teacher to figure out ways to support your child. If you do not get help, you can speak with a school counselor or administrator such as the principal.

You can request an interpreter if you do not speak English fluently. Some schools have a community or cultural liaison who can advocate for immigrant families. 

If you believe your rights or your child’s rights have been violated, you can file a complaint with your school teacher, counselor, principal, and school district superintendent. It is important for authorities to investigate the incident and help you take legal action if needed. 

You can also report discrimination to the Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. 


The information on this page comes from Department of Education, ACLU, and other trusted sources. We aim to offer easy to understand information that is updated regularly. This information is not legal advice.

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