Arizona Immigration Bills Spark High-School Protests at State Capitol


It was Tuesday around midnight when Ana, 16, received the text message: “Walk out tomorrow… It’s time to rise up, this is it. They will no longer intimidate us.”

The message came from fellow high school students, and Ana forwarded it to others via through Facebook. She was nervous about walking out of class to protest a new set of laws proposed by Arizona legislators -- laws that could keep undocumented students from attending public elementary and high school or college -- but she did.

Ana, who asked not to be identified by her full name out of concern for her family, stood Wednesday on the lawn of the Arizona State Capitol as groups of students arrived with signs reading “Educate Don’t Discriminate” and “Education is My Human Dignity.”

“It’s better to miss one day of school than to miss school for the rest of your life,” she said.

Educators Criticize Bills

Two pieces of legislation recently introduced in the Legislature could keep students such as Ana from enrolling in kindergarten through 12th grade and ban their access to higher education. One bill was sponsored by state Senate President Russell Pearce, the Republican behind last year’s SB 1070, which touched off a national furor.

The two new proposed bills are stirring up similar controversy. Critics argue that withholding education from children who come into this country illegally through no fault of their own would create an underclass and harm the state’s long-term interests.

“It will be a lot more expensive not to educate these kids,” said Garrett Smith, a history professor in Camelback High School in Phoenix. “Think of the cost of a whole generation with no education, nowhere to go, and no hope.”

Another separate provision applies to community colleges boards saying that they shall not allow undocumented students to enroll in class. Currently, undocumented students in Arizona have to pay out of state tuition to attend classes.

One provision of SB1611 would require parents of K-12 students to present proof that their children are in the United States legally. They would have 30 days from a child’s enrollment to verify citizenship by presenting documents from an approved list.

For parents who fail to comply, schools would be required to notify law-enforcement agencies. Under current law, parents need provide only some proof of a child's age, such as a certified copy of a birth certificate. But the law does not require that the birth certificate be from the United States.

Another section of SB 1611 would require community colleges boards to bar undocumented students.

The second bill, SB 1407, would require K-12 schools to submit data on the number of undocumented students enrolled in class, as well as those who are legal immigrants. Schools that withheld such data would be at risk of losing state and local funding.

U.S. Supreme Court Strategy

Former Democratic state Senator Alfredo Gutiérrez, editor of La Frontera Times, said lawmakers’ strategy is similar to that of another bill that recently caused a national stir. That legislation aims to force the U.S. Supreme Court to reinterpret the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which guarantees U.S. citizenship to anyone born in this country. Conservative Arizona lawmakers hope to deny citizenship to children born to parents illegally in the United States.

As with the birthright-citizenship bill, legislators introduced SB 1407 and 1611 to prompt “an immediate lawsuit,” Gutiérrez said. “What they are doing is setting up a Supreme Court challenge.”

Jack Chin, a University of Arizona law professor, said chances are good that these bills are unconstitutional.

Chin noted that in 1982, the Supreme Court overturned a Texas law similar to SB 1611, Plyler v. Doe. The Texas law would have denied free public education to immigrant children and forced them to present proof of legal residency or to pay K-12 tuition. The court ruled that the statute violated the constitutional guarantee to equal protection under the law by discriminating against one group of children, limiting their access to education.

“The court said there’s no rationale for denying an education to people that might well be part of the United States in the future,” Chin said. The high court also stressed that children shouldn’t be penalized because they had no choice in their parents’ decision to cross the border illegally.

In his majority opinion, Justice William J. Brennan wrote, "It is difficult to understand precisely what the State hopes to achieve by promoting the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare and crime."

But Chin added that Plyler v. Doe applies to basic education and therefore may not apply to part of SB 1611 that seeks to bar undocumented young adults from attending college.

“The Right to Find Out… Who We Are Paying For”

Proponents of the two bills insist that the goal is not to deny education to students, but to investigate them.

“We have the right to ask and find out who we are paying for,” said Sen. Steven Smith, the Republican sponsor of SB 1407, in an interview with New America Media. He contended that his bill won’t keep undocumented students from attending schools, but will respond to constituent’s questions about the costs of educating undocumented students.

“If the school district doesn’t comply, then there’s a penalty [to the school, but] there’s no penalty to the child,” said Smith.

Pearce did not respond to several interview requests.

Sen. Steve Gallardo, a Democrat and member of the Cartwright Elementary School District Board, said that if the bills are enacted, the board might resolve to challenge them in court.

Gallardo criticized Pearce for not keeping his promise as president of the Senate to wait until the state budget is finalized before pursuing his anti-illegal-immigration bills. Gallardo emphasized this is likely to draw another economic backlash against the state, which already faces a budget gap exceeding $2 billion through 2012.

School administrators agreed that the bills could have a major detrimental impact on Arizona’s economy.

“I see it as scaring people into asking what I don’t ask right now,” said such as principal Stephen Ybarra of Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix. “Under Plyler v. Doe, my job is to educate anyone who comes through my door that is under the age of 21.”

The tense climate in the state has affected some of his students and certainly their families, Ybarra said. And the new bills would no doubt frighten many families out of enrolling their children in school.

Since last year, Ybarra said, his high school has lost a hundred students, many from immigrant families who left Arizona because of its hostile laws and employer sanctions aimed at unauthorized workers. Because funding depends in part on the number of students, the high school has taken a major financial hit, Ybarra said.

Ybarra used the student protests as a teachable moment, urging young people to become informed about the issues before participating. He then joined about 200 of his students on an after-school march to the State Capitol in Phoenix.

More student protests and walkouts are expected throughout next week, when Pearce is expected to put the bills up for a Senate floor vote.

“Students Are the Future”

“It matters that we are here and we know why,” said Ana, who hopes to attend college one day and become a psychologist. She said she wishes she could help her undocumented parents, who earn a living by cleaning offices at night. Her eyes fill with tears when she thinks about them, but she knows she can only ensure a better future for her family if she gets an education.

“The students in high school are the future,” said Ana. “This is about babies that haven’t even been born yet, coming to a place of hate.”

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