Immigrant students once barred from sports can now play in Louisiana

Cohen students watch as the school’s boys team squared off against KIPP Renaissance in late September. Neither school has an officially sanctioned team, so they play six-on-six matches in a club league every Saturday. Photo: Casey Parks/The Hechinger Report

This story by Casey Parks, a contributing editor of The Bayou Brief, was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Louisiana principals voted Friday to amend a rule that had barred some immigrant students from playing high school sports. In a vote during the Louisiana High School Athletics Association’s annual convention in Baton Rouge, member principals agreed to allow students to use either the Louisiana Student Secure ID or a special LHSAA-only number to register for teams.

Previously, the association’s Rule 1.5.1 allowed only students with social security numbers to play.

The policy had been in place for years, an LHSAA spokeswoman said, before The Hechinger Report wrote about it this fall. In November, we profiled a group of Central American teenagers who hoped to create a soccer team at their New Orleans high school, Cohen College Prep. When officials from Cohen applied, they said they learned that most of the students wouldn’t be eligible. Though many are in Louisiana legally either on special visas or seeking asylum, most do not have social security numbers. The school created an unofficial team that competed in scrimmages last fall, but many students still hoped to represent Cohen in the state league.

The rule change came too late this school year for Cohen to field a soccer team for the state league, but Erik Zavala, an English Language Learner teacher at the high school, said his students celebrated when they heard the news.

“It was an uplifting moment,” Zavala said. “When I told my kids, they were very happy. They were like, ‘So when do we start?’ That’s really what they want. They want a team. They want to represent Cohen.”

Related: Immigrant students find hope in soccer, but some states won’t let them play

Since 1982, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Plyler v. Doe, ordered the Tyler, Texas, school district to allow undocumented students to enroll, federal law has required public schools to educate all students, no matter their immigration status.

“It was amazing to know we were a part of it, that we made it a difference in bringing out into the open something that should have never been on the books.” 

Erik Zavala, a Cohen teacher.

But high school athletics associations are independent nonprofits; each has their own rules. Few states have explicit policies concerning undocumented student-athletes, but several allow students to play, whether they’re U.S. citizens or not. Before this week, Louisiana’s rule was one of the most restrictive. Florida requires immigrant students to present official U.S. Customs forms, and Mississippi only allows students who aren’t U.S. citizens to play if they are official foreign exchange students.

Opposition to Louisiana’s policy has picked up steam since The Hechinger Report first wrote about it. Coaches from other teams began speaking out after LHSAA Executive Director Eddie Bonine sent a letter in November to member schools, reminding them that students could not play state-sanctioned sports unless they had social security numbers. Later that month, the ACLU of Louisiana and a Kenner, La.-based law firm demanded that the state overturn its policy or risk suit. New Orleans parent-advocacy group Our Voice Nuestra Voz mobilized, producing videos and petitions to challenge the rule.

In December, Morris Jeff Community High School Principal Margaret Leaf wrote a proposal suggesting the nonprofit athletic association also accept state student identification numbers. Louisiana principals approved an amended version of her proposal.

“It was a hard fight but a good victory,” said Henry Jones, chief engagement officer for Nuestra Voz. “It’s amazing to see people stand up and fight collectively, and demand Louisiana comply with federal law. It’s a real win for parents, teachers, and community members.”

Zavala, the Cohen teacher, said though his students missed the soccer season this year, they will again compete in an unsanctioned city league this spring. Last fall, Cohen won the Crescent City championship. This policy win, Zavala said, might mean even more than that trophy did.

“We were able to do this as a team and as a community,” Zavala said. “It was amazing to know we were a part of it, that we made it a difference in bringing out into the open something that should have never been on the books.”

This story about the immigrant students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Casey Parks
Casey Parks is a staff reporter covering New Orleans and Mississippi. Prior to joining The Hechinger Report, she spent a decade at The Oregonian, where she wrote about race and LGBTQ issues and was a finalist for The Livingston Award. She was the assistant editor of The Jackson (Mississippi) Free Press and the inaugural winner of the New York Times' Win a Trip to Africa with Nicholas Kristof contest. In high school, she worked before and after classes at The Alexandria Daily Town Talk in Central Louisiana. There, she fielded angry calls on the circulation desk in the morning and retyped press releases in the afternoon. The editors rewrote her first story, but she still keeps a copy of it in her desk. She earned a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where she also studied race, poverty and education.