Equity & Diversity

Student Immigration Status at Issue In Recent Incidents

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 02, 2002 4 min read

Several recent incidents involving undocumented immigrant students in American schools have drawn conflicting responses from lawmakers on how the U.S. government should deal with such students, particularly when their illegal status becomes public.

On one end of the spectrum are U.S. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch and U.S. Rep. Christopher B. Cannon, both Republicans from Utah, who are sponsoring federal bills that would permit certain undocumented youths who were college-bound to gain legal residency.

On the other end is U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who last month personally telephoned a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service official in Colorado, asking him to look into deporting an undocumented family that included a 17-year-old high school student who had advocated in the Denver Post that he be permitted to pay in-state college-tuition rates.

The students who would benefit from the proposed federal legislation appear to many Americans as an appealing bunch, observes Michael Fix, the director of immigrant studies for the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank.

“They’ve been here for some period of time and done what we expected them to do—they’ve graduated from high school, which a lot of their peers haven’t done,” he said. Yet, he added, “those sympathetic qualities have always been at war with the notion that the only people who should be here are people with consent.”

At least, said Mr. Fix, the question of whether undocumented children are entitled to a K-12 education has been settled. In Plyler v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that undocumented children living in this country have a right to a free, public precollegiate education.

An estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school every year in the United States, according to the Urban Institute. Many of them, no matter how good their academic records, then run into difficulty in pursuing higher education. (“Talented, But Not Legal,” May 31, 2000.)

‘Point Blank’

Despite the Supreme Court ruling two decades ago, asserts Luis Zayas, a lawyer in Fairview, N.J., Superintendent David C. Verducci of the 1,100-student Fairview school district denied five undocumented children the opportunity to go to school last month.

Mr. Zayas, who is serving as a lawyer for the parents of the children were asked by the superintendent “point blank what their immigration status was in this country.”

Mr. Verducci, however, counters that he didn’t inquire about the immigrant status of anyone, but rather asked the parents, who are related and have the surname of Medrano, for the children’s identification. He was shown a passport with an expired visitor’s visa, he says.

After he expressed concern to the parents over the expired visa, he said, one parent also told him that her two children, who had been enrolled in one of Fairview’s elementary schools the previous school year, were undocumented.

“I told them point blank,” recalled Mr. Verducci, “I don’t know what my obligations are here. I don’t know if I should report this. I need to get some guidance on this.”

William L. Taylor, a civil rights lawyer in Washington, said the 1982 ruling makes clear that the superintendent’s duty was to keep the undocumented children in school. The ruling also made clear, he added, that “it was the federal government’s business, not the state’s business, to run immigration policy.”

Superintendent Verducci says he also told the parents that if they transferred to another school system, he wouldn’t feel bound to follow through on the matter.

But Mr. Zayas claims that Mr. Verducci threatened to report the family to the INS and forced them to remove their children from school. The family pulled their children out of school and didn’t re-enroll them until nearly three weeks later, on Sept. 23, after a New Jersey Department of Education official assured them they could return, Mr. Zayas said.

Meanwhile, in Phoenix, an immigration judge last week gave four students facing deportation to Mexico an extension of more than a year before they must appear in court, where they will argue that they deserve to stay in the United States. The four honor students, two of whom are now attending college on full scholarships, have lived in the United States since they were children.

U.S. border officials discovered the teenagers were undocumented when they attempted to cross the U.S.-Canadian border to visit Niagara Falls on a school field trip. They were visiting the area while competing in an international solar-boat competition.

Instead, they were detained for more than eight hours and then told to appear in an immigration court in their home city of Phoenix, according to the youths’ lawyer, Judy Flanagan.

“It was a very tense situation,” she said, relaying what the students told her. “They were fingerprinted and photographed—treated like criminals.” She plans to argue in court that due process was not followed in questioning.

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