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Ariz. District Drops Immigration-Status Policy

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A school district in Tempe, Ariz., has dropped its longstanding--but illegal--practice of asking students their citizenship status and requiring many foreign-born students who live in the district to obtain student visas before enrolling in school.

While schools often are required to ask students for proof that they live within a district, school officials essentially are barred from asking about immigration status and cannot block a child's access to a public K-12 school based on such status, under a landmark 1982 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe.

The issue surfaced this month in the Tempe Union High School District when Maria Andrade tried to register her two sons at Marcos de Niza High School, one of six high schools in the 11,029-student district near Phoenix.

When Ms. Andrade filled out a standard registration form, she indicated that her sons, ages 13 and 17, were born in Mexico. She asked what to check off among three options listed--student visa, green card, or U.S. citizen. She was then sent to the district's central office where she was given student-visa applications and told that she would have to obtain the visas for her sons to attend school.

Ms. Andrade, who is from Mexico, has lived with her sons within the Tempe district for roughly six months, said Josue Alfonso Mu¤oz, a Phoenix lawyer who has been advising Ms. Andrade.

He declined to say whether Ms. Andrade--who through Mr. Mu¤oz said she wanted only her maiden name published--is in this country legally.

"It really doesn't matter," Mr. Mu¤oz said of the family's immigration status. "The point is that the policy was wrong and illegal. Districts need to know they cannot do this."

'Never Came Up Before'

Student visas generally require that a student apply at a U.S. consulate in his home country. If the student already is in the United States legally, he can petition the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to adjust his status to receive a student visa. But if the student is here illegally, he has no status to adjust and essentially would have to leave the United States and re-enter with a student visa, Mr. Mu¤oz said.

Members of a Phoenix civil-rights group brought Ms. Andrade's situation to the attention of Superintendent James D. Buchanan early this month. Within days, the school district's lawyer told Mr. Buchanan that the district's registration practices were not sound. The district immediately decided to stop requiring student visas and asking about citizenship, Mr. Buchanan said.

Ms. Andrade's sons now attend Marcos de Niza High School.

The superintendent said he was aware of the registration practices but did not know at the time that they violated the 1982 Supreme Court ruling. He said that he did not know why or how they started, but added that some students with visas pay tuition as out-of-state students.

Local immigration-rights advocates say the policy was a way to weed out undocumented students, but Mr. Buchanan rejected that charge. He said Ms. Andrade's situation was the first time he had been questioned about the practices, which were in place when he joined the district in 1991.

"I suppose it does seem strange," Mr. Buchanan said. "The only thing I can say is that it literally has never come up before."

The district does not track how many of its students are foreign-born, and officials do not know how many students have visas. The district's student population is roughly 70 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic, 6 percent black, 4 percent Asian-American, and 3 percent American Indian.

Janet R. Cox, the district's director of curriculum and vocational education who also worked on the student visas, said the schools will try to advise people who filled out visa forms for this year that they are not needed. "It did concern me that we were scaring some people off," Ms. Cox said, noting that some families who came in to fill out the visa paperwork never returned.

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