Tracking bill would require students to provide proof of citizenship.

2/20/2014

By ANGIE HAFLICH

By ANGIE HAFLICH

ahaflich@gctelegram.com

Local school administrators are weighing in on a state House bill that would require public school students to provide documentation of their citizenship status.

Rep. Allan Rothlisberg, R-Grandview Plaza, recently authored a bill that if passed, would require students to provide documentation of their citizenship status. The goal of the bill is to track the amount of taxpayer money being spent on educating illegal immigrants and to stimulate conversation about the subject.

"By federal law, we have to educate these children, the children of illegal aliens, so these children will not be denied an education," Rothlisberg said. "What I'm trying to get across here is where our tax money is being diverted to. It's not going to our children or grandchildren. It's being diverted to people who are in this country illegally."

Specifically, HB2521 would require every child who enrolls in a public school for the first time to present proof of lawful presence, such as a Social Security card, birth certificate or other document, for reporting purposes. School districts then would be required to submit an annual report to the Kansas State Board of Education on the total number of children who are enrolled in the school district but failed to provide proof of lawful presence.

Rothlisberg said this data would be compiled to determine how much tax money is going toward funding the education of children of illegal immigrants.

Dr. Rick Atha, superintendent of USD 457, believes that such a law, if passed, would have a negative impact on the district's relationship with the large number of immigrant parents and children who reside in the area.

"I think if a bill like this would become a law in Garden City, it would put at risk the trust that we have built between our parents and students, and that welcoming environment that we have tried to create in our schools," Atha said.

Atha said that, legally speaking, the bill doesn't have a leg to stand on.

"We can all cite examples of states that have passed legislation that was in violation of federal law. And, in particular, on immigration, and so I won't tell you they can't pass this bill and make it a law, but it will be interesting how it plays with the federal government and the federal constitution," he said.

He cited the 1982 Supreme Court case, Plyler vs. Doe, to illustrate the federal government's stance on the issue.

"It says explicitly in that court case, it makes it clear, the undocumented or non-citizen status of a student or his or her parent or guardian, is irrelevant to that student's entitlement to an elementary and secondary public education. It also says in there, under federal law, state and local educational agencies are required to provide all children with equal access to public education at the elementary and secondary level," Atha said. "And so, to do what I interpret this bill is asking school districts to do, we're creating an uncomfortable environment for that child to go to school, by asking that information of whether or not the student is documented or undocumented. We're in the business of wanting to make kids and their parents feel welcome to come to school, that school is a safe place for them."

Rothlisberg acknowledged the federal law, as well.

"As long as the federal law says that we are required to educate these children, then they're not going to change that law. It's not going to happen. So the ultimate goal is not to kick these kids out, just to identify the numbers that we're spending our money on," he said. "People have the right to know where their tax money is being spent — what it's being spent on."

Currently, as part of its enrollment process, USD 457 asks for proof of residency, such as a utility bill or rental agreement, and a copy of a child's birth certificate.

"We accept a birth certificate from here in the United States, and we also accept foreign birth certificates from outside the U.S.," Atha said.

Atha added that birth certificates establish who can make decisions on behalf of the students, should there be an accident of some kind on school grounds.

Because the district doesn't require students to provide documentation about their citizenship status, Atha said they don't have any data on the number of illegal immigrant students attending schools in the district.

"I wouldn't have a clue of how many or if we have any students who are here undocumented because we don't track that information or ask for it. It's irrelevant," he said. "I would say at any given time, we have 20 to 25 families here that are new to this country. And, when we're talking new to the country, I mean they're brand new."

Students who are new to the country are placed in newcomer classrooms, Darren Dennis, assistant superintendent said.

"We have three classrooms for students who are new to the country, one at each kind of grade band level; elementary, middle and the high school. It fluctuates quite a bit, but we've been full a good part of this year in those classrooms," Dennis said.

There can be as many as eight to 10 different languages spoken in the newcomer classrooms, Atha said.

Dennis added that English language learners make up close to 44 percent of the district.

"But that's different than immigrant," he said.

"I think if you were to look at our teachers' attitudes, our principals' attitudes, central office, all the way to the superintendent, to the board of education, we embrace and we value our diversity. We see it as a strength in this community. The world grows here," Atha said. "There are third, fourth generation Hispanics in this community, and, for the most part, we all get along pretty well."

When asked if HB2521 would have a discriminatory effect on students of either illegal or legal immigrants, Rothlisberg said that because all students will be required to provide documentation and because no identifying information will be shared, students of illegal citizenship status should have no reason to feel discriminated against.

"They feel alienated anyway because they know they're here illegally. So, I mean, they already know they're breaking the law," Rothlisberg said. "There's no names, no addresses, no telephone numbers, no pictures — it's just a set of numbers. The school districts are not identified, nor the county."

Rothlisberg is interested only in the number of tax dollars being spent on people who are here illegally.

"We have a lot of people who immigrate to this country and that's great, but they do it the right way," he said. "It doesn't matter if they're Hispanic, European, Asian, African. That doesn't matter. If you're in this country illegally, we need to know what our tax money is being spent on because, with it being spent on these children, it's not available for our own children and those who play by the rules."

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