Children chat in Spanish between classes at Mesa’s Lindbergh Elementary School, and signs are posted in English and Spanish so parents can navigate the campus.
Fewer than 10 percent of Lindbergh students were Hispanic in 1980. Today, the figure has swelled to more than 75 percent.
But Jennifer Kill, a sixth-grade teacher at the school, said she has never asked if any of these students are illegal immigrants or the children of illegal immigrants. Her job is to teach children, not to guard the border.
“As a teacher, you get the students that come to your door,” Kill said. “You don’t concern yourself with where they’re from, what they look like.”
People who do track immigration trends estimate that 125,000 to 145,000 children of illegal immigrants attend public elementary and secondary schools in Arizona.
That figure comes from the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C., which is quick to point out that about half of these students are likely U.S. citizens born in this country.
The Pew estimate nearly equals the enrollment of the Scottsdale, Mesa and Chandler unified school districts combined.
More than one in nine Arizona students is an illegal immigrant or the child of an illegal immigrant, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
To educate these children, school finance experts in Arizona suggest taxpayers will spend as much as $1.2 billion this year alone.
TEACHERS IN THE MIDDLE
Despite the Pew estimate, nobody knows for sure how many children of illegal immigrants attend Arizona schools.
That’s because schools such as Lindbergh aren’t allowed to ask. A 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling states that all children in the United States have a constitutional right to a public education regardless of their immigration status or the status of their parents.
When children enroll in public school, their parents must show proof of residency but not a Social Security number. Many families bring Mexican birth certificates and transcripts from Mexican schools.
New students who speak a language other than English at home are then tested for English proficiency.
On a recent day at Lindbergh, all 11 students who were tested for language proficiency qualified for additional state funding as “English language learners.”
Kill said she’s aware of Arizona’s debate over illegal immigration, but she refuses to speculate about anybody’s immigration status in her classroom.
“Do I think there are illegals taking time away?” she said. “Not at all. It never crosses my mind.”
She said more than half of her 30 students speak Spanish or a dialect close to Spanish, and she does “whatever it takes” to help these students succeed.
Depending on whom you ask, it costs between $7,720 and $8,500 each year to educate one Arizona child in the public school system.
Those numbers include federal, state and local funding for everything from teacher salaries, transportation, school nurses, meals, tutoring, special education, administration and school construction and maintenance.
The estimate also includes money the state sets aside each year for special English instruction for students not yet fluent.
All this spending infuriates opponents of illegal immigration.
“We have no obligation whatsoever to the illegal immigrant that’s here,” said Albert Rodriguez, a Hispanic U.S. citizen from Scottsdale.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne disagrees. He says all children in this country should be educated regardless of how they got here.
“We’re not going to leave these kids out in the street and not educate them,” Horne said. “If they’re here, they have to be educated.”
But some critics say Horne and state lawmakers don’t go far enough to educate these children.
Tim Hogan, an attorney with the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, said the true cost of educating English learners is much more than the state allocates.
“The state needs to help kids overcome language barriers that impede them from equal participation in public schools,” said Hogan, who represents a Nogales family in a 15-year-old lawsuit that accuses the state of shortchanging English learners.
A federal judge sided with Hogan in 2000, and lawmakers responded by doubling the English immersion funding for each qualified student to $355 per year.
With 132,000 English learners in Arizona, that comes to nearly $47 million annually. But that’s still not enough, according to the judge.
“The court has said, ‘We think that’s too little,’ and we’re litigating that,” Horne said.
Not all students designated as English learners are children of illegal immigrants.
Some English learners are the children of legal residents. Conversely, some fluent English speakers are illegal immigrants. Hogan’s case does not concern itself with how these numbers break down.
Jesus, a 16-year-old high school junior who declined to give his surname, acknowledges that he lacks proper documentation.
“When I got here, I started taking some English classes because I didn’t know like, anything at all,” said Jesus, who moved from Mexico in 2002.
When Jesus signed up for classes, he said he brought his Mexican birth certificate and his transcripts.
“I’m a good student,” said Jesus, who said he had the equivalent of an “A” average when he moved to Arizona.
Gabriela, a 17-year-old illegal immigrant who moved to the United States with her family when she was 2, said most illegal immigrants pay taxes and should be welcome at public schools.
“One way or another, we should be getting what we pay for,” she said.
Students like Jesus and Gabriela said they want to succeed in the U.S., and there are teachers trying to help them.
“That’s the reason we’re here,” Kill said. “So my students can graduate and they can get jobs and be productive.”
But instead of being excited for their high school graduations, Jesus and Gabriela said they are nervous.
They said they can’t afford to pay out-of-state tuition after Proposition 300 passed, and they don’t want to go back to Mexico.
Prop. 300, which voters approved in 2006, requires state colleges and universities to check Social Security numbers and charge out-of-state tuition for applicants without proper documentation.
“I see a lot of people getting their applications in,” Gabriela said. “I try to look at it and there it is … it’s like, where is your Social Security number? It’s like a slap in the face.”
Jesus called the citizenship requirement unfair.
“I’m as good as American citizens,” he said. “I’m even smarter than some of them.”
But Rodriguez, who founded an illegal immigration watchdog group in May called You Don’t Speak for Me, offers a solution.
“There is a place to go,” he said. “Get his parents to take him back where he came from.”
Gabriela’s father said he has no regrets for bringing his family to Arizona. He said in Mexico, he only made it through the third grade.
Now he wants his family members to become U.S. citizens.
“From the very start you struggle if you decide to come here without a visa,” he said.
CITIZENSHIP WITH DIPLOMAS?
Horne has a plan that would reward high school graduates with citizenship. All they would have to do is pass a test.
“If there’s a standardized test that confirms it, that the student does well and learned, I would have no objection to that,” Horne said.
But Rodriguez said Horne’s proposal would create an incentive for immigrants to break the law while there are other people waiting in line to become citizens.
“They’re doing it the right way,” Rodriguez said. “Why should these people step in the front of the line and break another
The bottom line, Horne said, is that illegal immigration is the parents’ fault — not the children’s fault.
“Let’s fight the Supreme Court again,” Rodriguez said. “And let’s see what happens.”