News | The Wrong Question: An immigrant student’s visa status should be none of the school district’s business 

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The ink on Utah’s sweeping new get-tough-on-immigrants law isn’t even dry yet. In fact the law doesn’t take effect until July 1, 2009. But some school officials reportedly are already hassling immigrants about enrolling their children in public schools.

Reports that immigrant children are being denied enrollment or being told they must pay tuition of around $6,000 to attend a free public school, are trickling in to groups that work with immigrant communities.

Heather Masterton, director of the South Valley Sanctuary, a shelter for victims of domestic violence in West Jordan, said her case workers had received reports that in some cases, school officials, “were actually telling [immigrant parents] they would have to pay out-of-state tuition for public school. It seems that people are just interpreting Senate Bill 81 [the omnibus immigration bill passed by the 2008 Legislature] how they would like to or that there is just some major confusion.”

Enrollment problems are likely the result of uninformed individuals “who are not particular friends of the immigrant … taking this into their own hands,” says Tony Yapias, director of the advocacy group Proyecto Latino de Utah. “Those people shouldn’t be working there if they are going to take their personal bias and try to segregate a community.”

State education lawyers and school district officials charged with ensuring equal access have not received reports that children of undocumented immigrants are being denied enrollment. The Jordan School District, however, has occasionally asked immigrants to pay tuition.

And it isn’t undocumented students who are being asked to pay. It is immigrants legally in the country on so-called “visitor” visas.

Cal Evans, executive director of compliance and special programs for the Jordan School District, says the law is clear that children of undocumented parents should be enrolled. “If I find out undocumented kids are not being allowed in school, I will intervene,” he says. “It’s not in anybody’s interest to hold kids out of school that are going to be here. They need education, and the more education they have, the better off it is for everybody.”

However, Evans said, district administrators are debating a provision in state law that requires foreign-exchange students to pay tuition at Utah public schools. Some interpret the measure to mean that children of parents here on visitor visas must pay tuition.

Many illegal immigrants first enter the country as legal immigrants, then overstay their visas, Evans notes. “It’s getting complicated because of the conflict between case law, federal law, state law and what a lot of people would like to see happen,” Evans said. “The mass migration across the border from Mexico puts a different light on everything.”

“If you find out they are on a visitors visa, it’s illegal to enroll them unless they pay tuition,” Evans says. “There is no law that says you can’t ask: ‘Under what [immigration] provision are you here?’”

Actually, there is a law. The law of the land was firmly established by the U.S. Supreme Court 20 years ago, says Carol Lear, a lawyer with the Utah Office of Education: Any student whose parent or legal guardian lives in a school district can enroll in a public school, regardless of immigration status. No state law can change that.

“That is our constant, consistent message to schools,” she says. “You certainly can make sure they are here with a legal guardian, but we don’t care whether they have a green card, we don’t care what their immigration status is.”

It is illegal for school employees to ask about the immigration status of anyone enrolling a student, says Richard Gomez, section coordinator for educational equity at the Utah Office of Education. If a school is routinely determining the visa status of students and trying to charge tuition as a condition of enrollment, it could raise questions about whether there is profiling going on in an attempt to illegally keep out immigrant students, he says.

“How are they finding out whether or not a child has any kind of tourist visa?” asks Gomez, who has not received reports of undocumented parents having trouble enrolling children in school. “They shouldn’t be asking that question.”

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