| Sikh children at a school in New York.
Carteret, New Jersey, Sept. 10: A few weeks back, Linda Singh picked up the registration packet from her local school district. There, at the bottom of the first page, was the question regarding birthplace, followed by: “If not USA, date entered USA.”
It set off alarm bells for Singh, who is of Irish ancestry and married to an Indian immigrant, with five US-born children. She feared that this was another school district trying to figure out the immigration status of its students.
She alerted the Sikh temple where her family goes, and they drew up fliers notifying parents that they did not have to answer immigration questions. She called civil liberties advocates. Then, armed with legal citations, she attended a recent school board meeting and would not back down.
“I feel like it concerns me because this is my town,” Singh said. “If I don’t make a stand in my back yard, then what’s next'”
Scores of New Jersey schools are stirring unease among immigrant parents by asking them to provide immigration-related information when they register their children for school. Fourteen years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that cities and towns must provide education for all students, regardless of immigration status.
The New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union conducted a survey in the past few weeks and found that 57 schools and district offices request immigration-related information or a student’s Social Security number for school registration.
The advocacy group, which surveyed 224 schools, said such questions violate federal and state privacy laws and can discourage immigrant families from registering their children.
“We live in a society that is increasingly encroaching on our privacy,” said Annu Mangat, a spokesman for the New Jersey chapter. “This is a fairly straightforward thing to remedy. They need to train staff and revise their forms.”
School officials, by and large, insist that they are not asking these questions out of any desire to ferret out students who are illegal immigrants. They note that New Jersey is densely packed and that all districts scrutinise their student body for interlopers.
“I can assure that it wasn’t meant to check immigration status, to determine if someone has a green card or a red card,” said Dennis W. Siddons, of the Carteret school district.
After the school board clarified the intent behind its question, it saw an increase in the number of South Asian families registering their children, Siddons said.
But these immigration questions arise against a backdrop of escalating tensions over immigration. Singh thought nothing of it several years ago, when the school district requested the Social Security numbers of her children, but that was before towns in New Jersey and Pennsylvania embraced the current wave of ordinances aimed at restricting jobs and housing for undocumented immigrants.
Add to that the attacks against Sikhs after September 11, 2001. Her husband, Harminder Singh, a charter bus driver, was once asked if he had a bomb on his bus.
Linda Singh, whose Gaelic features are framed by black hair, has felt the return of the fighting spirit of her twenties, when she took up the cause of Northern Irish independence. “I care a lot about civil rights being trampled on,” she said.