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Law Of The Land?

The immigration debate could force districts to change the way they deal with undocumented students and parents.

By Alexander Russo | June , 2006
Vickie Ojeda (right) and Stephanie Hernandez, both 15, march in downtown Dallas.
Vickie Ojeda (right) and Stephanie Hernandez, both 15, march in downtown Dallas.

When 40,000 Southern California middle and high school students ditched class to participate in one of the first mass immigration-law protests, one principal went admittedly overboard. Children at Worthington Elementary School in Inglewood, California, were placed in lockdown, where they had to resort to urinating in buckets in the classroom. A school official later explained to the Los Angeles Times: “When there’s a nuclear attack, that’s when the buckets are used. ... [She] followed procedure. She made a decision to follow the handbook. She just misread it.”

The rallies are just the most immediate rule-book revisions that school and district officials face on the topic of immigration and education. Congress is considering reform legislation that could affect the requirements and procedures schools use regarding an institution’s relationship with undocumented immigrant parents, students, and employees.

Nearly 5 million of the nation’s children have parents who are undocumented, according to a recent report from the Pew Hispanic Center. But two-thirds of those children—more than 3 million—were born in this country and are U.S. citizens under current federal law, regardless of their parents’ immigration status. In either case, districts are required to serve children whose parents reside in the district, regardless of the citizenship status of the child or the parents.

Some districts have nevertheless tried to restrict access to the classroom without federal legislative overhauls. Earlier this year, a suburban Illinois district came under intense pressure to stop screening children based on immigration status before enrolling them. The district had been screening students for about four years, according to published reports, but was forced to stop due to public attention and the state board of education’s threat to withhold funding and district recognition.

Studying Your Students
The immigration bill passed by the House is the most dramatic in scope and is the source of most of the recent protests. It would, among other things, criminalize illegal immigration and in theory send illegal immigrants back to their home countries. A Senate version would give some illegal immigrants the chance to become citizens, and President George W. Bush supports a guest worker program that would allow immigrants to enter the country based on whether their work is needed.

None of the major proposals Congress is considering focuses on immigrant students. The cost of educating those students has not been at the center of political discussion as it has been in the past, when lawmakers used cost arguments to propose barring undocumented children from schools. But a new law would probably add to districts’ administrative burden by bolstering requirements that employers check their employees’ proof of citizenship, according to those who are tracking the legislation.

Helping May Hurt

Perhaps of greatest concern for educators, the House version of the law makes it a crime not only to be undocumented but also to “assist” an undocumented person. This is especially problematic for teachers and others who may be aware of students’ and parents’ immigration status.

“What it means to assist an undocumented person is not defined,” says Harvard law professor Deborah Anker, who has studied the House version of the legislation. “Virtually anything could be assisting—teaching, giving them a glass of water.”

It remains uncertain what changes, if any, will be made to the law. But the renewed ambiguity surrounding immigration issues creates confusion about what is required and what is legal, says Julie Underwood, dean of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin.

“What’s happened this spring changes the conversation about people who are undocumented,” says Underwood. “It furthers the confusion about what forms you need to ask for and what you can and can’t require.”

According to Anker, some parents have stopped going to school events, even though their children are legally entitled to a public school education. Parents who are not documented are “afraid to show up at schools for parent-teacher conferences,” she says. “They’re afraid to drop off their children at school.”


Photo Credit: © David McNew/Getty Images 

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