NO.LHSAA2111018

Joseph Escobar, 17, plays soccer at Lafreniere Park in Metairie, La. Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. Escobar is originally from Honduras but now lives in Louisiana and attends East Jefferson High School where he plays for his school's soccer team. The Louisiana High School Athletic Association issued a memo on Nov 2. 2018 requiring all student-athletes provide social security numbers in order to be eligible to participate in school sports. Kenner attorneys took action against the LHSAA rule saying that the rule discriminates against undocumented immigrants. Escobar has seen this memo prohibit many of his friends from participating in his school's soccer team. 

A law firm known for its work with Hispanic immigrants is threatening legal action against Louisiana high school sports officials over a rule that the attorneys say discriminates against immigrants in the country illegally by preventing them from playing on high school sports teams.

The rule, which requires all participants in high school athletics to provide a Social Security number except in some specific circumstances, violates the constitutional right to a basic public education that applies whether or not the students or their parents have permission to live in the United States, Kenner attorney Miguel Elias said in a letter sent Friday to the Louisiana High School Athletic Association.

The rule in question dates back to at least 2016, but it received new attention after the LHSAA sent a Nov. 2 memo warning coaches that there had been “an influx” of athletes listing state-issued student identification numbers in registration paperwork rather than the last four digits of their Social Security numbers.

Social Security numbers are given to American citizens and foreigners with some visas authorizing them to be in the U.S.

The LHSAA memo said student-athletes without Social Security numbers need to belong to “an approved foreign exchange program” to be eligible to compete in LHSAA sports. That in effect disqualified children who are brought to the U.S. by their parents without legal permission.

The LHSAA, which oversees sports at public and private high schools, didn’t respond to a request from The Advocate for comment on the rule.

But, in a follow-up memo to members dated Friday, LHSAA Director Eddie Bonine said his organization would yield to schools' "accepted practices and/or provisions for accurately collecting the appropriate paperwork validating ... minimum requirements for participation" until the association's executive committee had the chance to discuss the matter further. 

Some coaches, students and their supporters were incensed over the Nov. 2 communiqué, particularly because it was issued just as the four-month season for soccer — immensely popular in Hispanic countries — kicks off.

It also comes amid the heated rhetoric on immigration that reached a crescendo in recent weeks as President Donald Trump focused on a migrant caravan from Central America as a campaign issue before the midterm elections.

“I hate seeing news like this,” one Facebook user wrote in Spanish in reaction to a post from Elias on the controversy. “I think all youths have rights, regardless of their immigration status.”

Students who stood to be affected by the rule went to Elias’ office seeking help. The law firm responded with its letter, which argued that the rule runs counter to a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found constitutional protections apply to all people in the country, regardless of their immigration status.

“Children cannot be denied a public education based on their legal status in the United States,” the letter from Elias’ law firm said. “In its opinion, the court opined that to deny children a basic education would foreclose to them the ability to live in and meaningfully contribute to American society.”

The letter called athletics “an essential part in the formation and basic education of the youth.” It demanded that the LHSAA afford all students — including those in the country illegally — the opportunity to play sports for the schools they are attending.

If not, the letter said, Elias’ law firm would pursue litigation. 

“Failure to correct this issue will constitute continued discrimination based on ... immigration status and will require further legal action,” the letter said.

Elias’ partner, Paula Ferreira, said her office is attacking the rule on a pro bono basis because it believes sports are a powerful way to bring children of various backgrounds together.

“Many of these students (affected by the LHSAA rule) don’t understand the language,” Ferreira said. “They are in (English as a second language) classes and the only way they can relate is through playing a sport.

“For a lot of them, their team and their sport is their life.”

PJ Lynch, the owner and operator of a private soccer league for high school-age players outside of the LHSAA’s winter season, frequently encounters students looking to play the game they love.

“The ... issue ... could easily be resolved, and adults just get in these kids’ way,” Lynch said.

His league, administered by his Crescent City Soccer company, was recently profiled by The Undefeated, an ESPN-owned website focusing on sports, race and culture.

And while Lynch's league offers an outlet for kids who aren’t allowed on their high school teams, it is a six-on-six format rather than full 11-on-11 soccer. It also doesn’t have a formal connection to the players’ schools.

“There’s a different type of pride that comes from playing the game and wearing your school’s badge,” Lynch said.

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

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