Equity & Diversity

District Will Stop Querying Students on Immigration

By Andrew Trotter — March 07, 2006 5 min read
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Under intense pressure from state officials, an Illinois school district has agreed to stop asking about the immigration status of students who apply to enroll in school. It abandoned a 4-year-old practice of trying to screen out foreign students who are in the United States on tourist visas, according to a lawyer representing the district.

The state board of education voted on Feb.23 to cut off state funding to Elmwood Park Community Unit School District No. 401, about three months after it learned that the 2,800-student district’s high school had denied enrollment to a 14-year-old student from Ecuador, referred to as Sharon M. in court papers.

The girl left the district, in a working-class inner suburb of Chicago, according to John J. Murphy, the lawyer for the district. According to the Chicago Tribune, she moved to Florida for fear that the district would report her to immigration officials.

In December, a child from the Czech Republic was also turned away after she tried to enroll in the district. In discussion with school officials, she had said she possessed a B-2 visa, Mr. Murphy said. She refused to show it, but after she sued the district and revealed in court that her tourist visa expired eight years ago, the district allowed her to enroll, he said.

The state notified the district in a Dec. 20 letter that it had placed it on probation because of the treatment of Sharon M., and that it would strip it of state recognition unless the district submitted an acceptable plan for corrective action by last week.

The state cited Illinois law and a landmark 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling as requiring public schools to educate students without regard to their immigration status.

In Plyler v. Doe, the Supreme Court struck down a Texas statute that authorized districts to deny enrollment to children who were not “legally admitted” into the United States.

The 5-4 Plyler decision held that a Texas district that had refused enrollment to a group of Mexican children of illegal immigrants residing in the district had violated the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause, in part because such children were innocent of wrongdoing that their parents might have committed by entering the country. The majority opinion by Justice William J. Brennan Jr. also noted the value to the nation of immigrants who eventually may become citizens.

The case garnered fresh notice last summer during the confirmation process for Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to the high court. As a lawyer in the Reagan administration in the early 1980s, Mr. Roberts had written a memo critical of the decision. (“Education Groups Wait to Opine on Roberts Nomination,” Aug. 10, 2005.)

State Aid at Risk

Mr. Murphy, a lawyer based in Chicago, said that the Plyler decision does not address children who enter the country legally, as tourists, and then seek to attend public schools.

“In our opinion, Plyler has nothing to do with students who were here on a legal basis,” he said in an interview last week.

Nonetheless, the Elmwood Park school board threw in the towel, voting unanimously on Feb. 24 to accept the state agency’s demands.

As part of the settlement, the district dropped a lawsuit it filed Feb. 3 in U.S. District Court in Chicago that had sought to block the state’s action. The district also agreed to train its personnel not to ask about students’ immigration status and not to make enrollment decisions on that basis.

Mr. Murphy said the district capitulated largely because of the consequences if the state no longer recognized it. The district would have forfeited about $300,000 in state aid last week before the federal judge had time to rule on the district’s suit, he said, as well as further payments adding up to about $4 million by the end of the school year. In addition, the district’s students would have been barred from taking part in interscholastic athletics.

“They were acting like schoolyard bullies and afraid of letting the judge decide,” Mr. Murphy said of the state board.

The state board reinstated the district soon after the school board accepted the state’s demands.

But the Elmwood Park board still believes it was right to bar a student with a tourist visa from enrolling it its schools. “They’re a patriotic group of citizens,” Mr. Murphy said of the board.

‘Untenable Situation’

The case comes at a time when the issue of undocumented immigrants has returned to the spotlight around the country and as a question of federal policy.

The Elmwood Park school district’s posture has attracted praise from the Chicago Minuteman Project, a citizens’ group that is part of a coalition of state and local groups that are opposed to illegal immigration.

Under federal law, a B-2 visa is issued to foreigners who enter the United States temporarily for pleasure or medical treatment. It is not issued for academic study.

The district’s lawsuit contended that if administrators had permitted Sharon M. to enroll in violation of her visa status, the district would have been guilty of “knowingly permitting her to violate the immigration laws of the United States as well as assisting her in violating of same.”

Civil rights experts acknowledged that the Supreme Court’s Plyler ruling did not directly address the issue of students with tourist visas, but they said it clearly instructed educators to stay out of determining students’ immigration status.

“I view [the Elmwood Park dispute] as sort a minor twist on a major issue that was decided over 20 years ago,” said Dianne M. Piché, the executive director of the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights, a private organization in Washington. “The children’s status is really not relevant.”

Mr. Murphy replied, “I wish they could tell me the [legal] authority that says that.”

As the Elmwood Park case makes clear, districts may also have practical reasons to steer clear of the issue.

“It’s very dangerous for a school district to get into the business of trying to interpret and enforce federal immigration law and policy,” Ms. Piché said. “They are ill-equipped to do so simply because they don’t have the legal expertise and background to make this kind of decision, which often has to be made on a case-by-case basis.”

Francisco M. Negrón Jr., the general counsel of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va., was sympathetic toward the Illinois district.

“These kinds of things arise out of the complexity and difficulty of understanding immigration laws,” he said, “that really place school districts in an untenable situation.”

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