Another immigration plan: charge tuition for illegal students

Luige del Puerto

AZ Capitol Times

Jun 4, 2010

Daniel was 6 years old when his mother sneaked him and his two sisters into the United States from Mexico.

He later graduated from the Arizona public school system and earned two degrees from Arizona State University – one in political science, the other in literature.

But the harsh reality of his status as an illegal immigrant broadsided his dream of becoming a lawyer. As an illegal immigrant, Daniel is barred from getting waivers, grants or any other financial assistance to finish law school, so he dropped out after the first year and is now working as an intern at a law office.

What frustrates Daniel is that nothing is being done to address the issue of students like him who were brought here at a very young age.

“Imagine waking up one day and your parents telling you that, ‘Hey, you’re actually from Iran and you’re not here documented, and you’re about to face a really harsh reality’,” said Daniel, whose last name was withheld by the Arizona Capitol Times.

But if Sen. Russell Pearce gets his way, people like Daniel would be derailed from the education system much earlier, and in a way that could have much more significant effects on individuals and society as a whole.

Pearce said he plans to draft legislation next year to require students who are here illegally to pay tuition or be removed from public schools.

“They shouldn’t be a burden.” Pearce said. “You don’t have a right to be a non-resident of this state and take advantage of the taxpayers of this state.”

There are no precise figures to calculate the number of undocumented students in Arizona’s schools. But according to the Pew Hispanic Center, at least 10 percent of students in Arizona’s K-12 system have parents who are illegal immigrants.

It costs $9,698 to educate each student for one year in the Arizona public school system, according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. That figure, from January 2009, represents local, state and federal funding.

Carmen Cornejo of CADENA, a group that advocates for the passage of the federal DREAM Act, called the idea ridiculous and contrary to human rights. She said children have a right to a free public education, and the state should be trying to get more children into school rather than keep them out.

Cornejo said Arizona already has one of the lowest rates of high school completion in the nation and Pearce’s proposal would exacerbate the problem.

John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association, opposes the idea of requiring students who are illegally here to pay tuition because it would potentially put school workers, such as teachers, in the middle of the immigration crossfire and take them away from the mission of educating children.

“It suddenly requires school personnel to play a role as an immigration official to check status and to require documentation,” he said.

It wouldn’t be the first attempt to pass legislation requiring public school tuition for illegal immigrant students. Sen. John Huppenthal, a Republican from Chandler, offered an amendment this year that would have required school boards to charge tuition to undocumented students or remove them from class. The amendment failed to pass.

“The basic idea though is to try to get a little bit of control over the tide of illegal immigration that is just overwhelming us,” Huppenthal said.

Indeed, the legislation was meant to test the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in a case out of Texas in the early 1980s.

In Plyler v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states must offer free public education to all school-age children, whether they are here illegally or not.

The court ruled that while public education is not a right, it is also not just some governmental benefit. Education has a fundamental role in maintaining the fabric of society, the court said.

“By denying these children a basic education, we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions, and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our nation,” the justices noted.

Not only that, but the court noted it would be fundamentally unfair to act against the children of illegal immigrants.

“Even if the state found it expedient to control the conduct of adults by acting against their children, legislation directing the onus of a parent’s misconduct against his children does not comport with fundamental conceptions of justice.”

The court noted, though, that there was no evidence suggesting illegal immigrants impose any significant burden on the state’s economy, and the record did not support the claim that excluding undocumented children was likely to improve the overall quality of education.

Michael Hethmon, a lawyer with the Immigration Reform Law Institute, said his group is recommending a two-phase approach to overturning ~Plyler~. The first is to gather information to show an adverse impact as a result of educating children who are here illegally, then revisit the case’s constitutional merits.

Hethmon said the situation is different now, and it would be hard to argue that illegal immigrants have no significant impact on the educational opportunities of U.S. citizens or legal residents. Arizona, which shares the border with Mexico, was estimated to have about 500,000 undocumented residents in 2008, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

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