Saying they want to know how much it costs Arizona taxpayers to educate illegal immigrants, a Senate panel voted Wednesday to require public schools to ask parents to provide documents showing their children are in this country legally.
The 4-2 vote by the Senate Committee on Education Accountability and Reform came even after an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union said it would violate federal law. Alessandra Meetze said if SB1172 becomes law, her group will sue.
"Let them sue," responded Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, who crafted the legislation.
He acknowledged a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision forbids schools from refusing to enroll students who cannot prove they are legal U.S. residents. But he said nothing in that ruling prohibits schools from asking as long as no student is turned away for failing to provide the documentation sought.
Meetze, however, said that would be the practical effect of asking.
"It's going to deter parents from enrolling their children in school," she said. And that, Meetze said, effectively denies these students admission, precisely what the U.S. Supreme Court declared to be illegal.
Pearce, a longtime foe of illegal immigration, said he's not trying to keep those youngsters out of school - at least not yet. All he's looking for now is information.
"I as a taxpayer, it seems to me I'm paying a pretty big bill for those who violate our laws," he said.
Pearce said it costs about $10,000 a year, when all the expenses are considered, to educate each child. The problem, he said, is no one really knows the total price tag.
The closest estimate comes from the Pew Hispanic Center, which estimates that anywhere from 60,000 to 65,000 of the 1.2 million youngsters in Arizona schools are not legal residents, figures that translate to about $650 million a year.
Pearce said those numbers may be low. In fact, he says the cost to taxpayers is at least $800 million a year - and perhaps as high a $1.5 billion.
Mike Smith, lobbyist for the Arizona School Administrators Association, said there are some holes in the bill.
On one hand, it mandates that the state Department of Education put together a statistical report each year of the number of students who cannot demonstrate proof of legal U.S. residence. And it allows state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne to withhold state aid to any district that refuses to comply.
But Smith said nothing in the law spells out exactly what schools have to do.
Pearce, however, said it's a simple matter of asking parents to bring in some proof of citizenship for the child, like a birth certificate. He said that is no different than existing requirements for things like showing a child has been vaccinated.
And Pearce said it's no different than proving qualifications for any other government benefit or service.
"The burden is on you who is seeking to get a public benefit, a taxpayer benefit."
The legislation, however, imposes no penalty on any parent who fails or refuses to provide documentation. The only thing that would happen, Pearce said, is the child would be assumed to be an illegal immigrant.
He also brushed aside privacy concerns, saying the only information that would be shared with the state is the final tally, not the names of each student who can and cannot prove legal residence.
While SB1172 is limited to collecting numbers, Pearce said he sees it as just a first step to mounting a new challenge to that 1982 decision.
"To take Plyler v. Doe on, you have to have data," he said. Pearce said he believes the U.S. Supreme Court might be willing to listen once Arizona can show the burden on taxpayers.
That issue of costs could be significant.
In that 1982 ruling, the justices overturned a Texas law that denied state aid to educate any child not in this country legally. That law also gave local districts, which would not be getting money, the right - but not the obligation - to refuse to enroll those students.
Justice William Brennan, writing the decision, noted that Texas officials argued that they were justified in excluding illegal immigrants because of the "special burden" they placed on the state's ability to provide a high-quality education.
But he said the record - at least in that case - "in no way supports the claim that the exclusion of undocumented children is likely to improve the overall quality of education in the state."
Brennan said a case might be made for denying benefits to people who purposely break the law. But he said the Texas law penalized children "who are present in this country through no fault of their own."
The figures from Pew on illegal immigrants in Arizona schools do not include perhaps another 100,000 or more children who are citizens by virtue of being born in this country but would not be here except for the fact that a parent entered this country illegally.