Wed, June 26

Senate vote would require schools to ask parents if their children are in this country legally

PHOENIX -- State senators voted Monday to force schools to ask parents whether their children are in this country legally.

Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said Arizona taxpayers are entitled to know how many children are being educated who have no legal right to be here. He said asking for documentation when a child is enrolled is no different than asking for proof of vaccinations or that a youngster actually lives within the school district.

Nothing in SB 1097, given preliminary approval would preclude a student from being enrolled if a parent could not or would not provide proof of U.S. citizenship or legal residency. And Pearce concluded he couldn't keep the children out based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision obligating states to provide public education for all regardless of legal status.

But Pearce did not dispute a contention by foes that simply the act of asking might keep some parents, themselves illegal immigrants, from enrolling their children, even if the youngsters were born in this country. And he said that doesn't bother him one bit.

"The laws are intended to make people fearful,' Pearce said.

"If you're in fear you're going to be deported, that's the reason we have laws,' he continued. "I'm not going to apologize we have laws against it (illegal immigration) and you're in fear of those laws.'

Sen. Jorge Garcia, D-Tucson, proposed altering the legislation to require that the form used to solicit the information include wording telling parents that providing the documentation is voluntary and that their children can't be denied an education.

Garcia said all that does is spell out what is in fact the truth: No child can be turned away.

But Pearce said that undermined the main purpose of the legislation: He wants an accurate count of illegal immigrants in Arizona schools. More to the point, he wants to know what all of that costs.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimated several years ago that anywhere from 60,000 to 65,000 youngsters in Arizona schools are not legal residents, figures that translate to about $650 million a year in state aid and local taxes. Pearce said those numbers are low, suggesting the cost to taxpayers is at least $800 million a year, and perhaps as high a $1.5 billion.

"The taxpayer has a right to know,' Pearce said.

That figure does not count U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants, children who would not otherwise be in Arizona schools except for the fact that a parent entered the country illegally or overstayed a visa. According to that Pew study, another 100,000 to 110,000 children in Arizona schools had at least one parent who was an illegal immigrant.

The American Civil Liberties Union already has vowed to sue if Pearce's bill becomes law, arguing that just the act of asking would effectively deny children their right to a public education.

Pearce said he does not worry about a lawsuit. In fact, he said that fits his secondary motive: He wants the U.S. Supreme Court to take another look at that 1982 ruling which obligated states to provide public education to illegal immigrant children.

But Pearce did agree to add language, sought by schools, to immunize them against being sued personally for following the law and gathering the data. The bill needs a final Senate roll-call vote before going to the House.