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Immigrant Youth Face Discrimination in North Carolina Districts, Advocates Allege

A group of advocates today announced their effort to prod federal civil rights officials to investigate two North Carolina districts for either denying or making it difficult for immigrant students to enroll in their schools.

The complaint—against the Buncombe County and Union County school districts—was filed on behalf of two immigrant youth yesterday with the U.S. Department of Justice's civil rights division by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, North Carolina Justice Center, and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. The two students were unaccompanied minors who entered the United States illegally without an adult to care for them.

Buncombe County has 25,000 students—15 percent of them are Hispanic—and includes the city of Asheville. Union County has 40,000 students—12 percent are Hispanic—and is based in the city of Monroe, N.C.

According to the complaint, one student—a 17-year-old girl from Honduras—was told by a Spanish-speaking Buncombe County school administrator who reviewed her schooling records from Honduras and the six months she spent in a Texas detention center for unaccompanied minors that she could not enroll in middle school or high school. Her second attempt to enroll at a local middle school several months later was also denied by the school's counselor, the complaint says.

A spokesman for Buncombe County told the Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper that he could not comment on specific students but that some of the facts in the complaint are not accurate.

The complaint also describes the experience of a 17-year-old boy from Guatemala who attempted to enroll in a high school in Union County and was told by the school's secretary that he was too old. She referred the boy to a nearby community college's adult education center to enroll in its GED program. Administrators there turned the boy away for being too young, the complaint says. Eventually, the boy was able to enroll in the high school.

North Carolina law guarantees that all students younger than 21 are entitled to a public education in the school district in which they live. Federal statutes prohibit public schools from discriminating against students on the basis of their national origin. And the landmark 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe ruled that children are entitled to receive a free public K-12 education in the United States regardless of their immigration status.

The numbers of unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. on their own such as the two students in the complaint have been on the rise in recent years. Advocates say they are especially vulnerable to discrimination and exploitation.

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