RALEIGH — A bill being called the Safe Students Act would require school principals in North Carolina to ask parents about their child's citizenship and immigration status when the child is enrolled for the first time.
That information would be used only for the state's financial analysis, the bill stipulates, and not for immigration enforcement. But the idea has plenty of critics who say the requirement would run afoul of federal law and put school administrators in an adversarial role with families.
"Such a policy poses a substantial risk of chilling children's access to education by fostering the fear that enrollment may bring families to the attention of immigration authorities," said Sarah Preston, lobbyist with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.
But Rep. Dale Folwell, a Winston-Salem Republican and primary sponsor of the bill, said the state should be able to collect data on students' citizenship status to show the true results of the federal government's "unfunded mandate" to educate children who are here illegally.
"We must have fiscal research of the impact that illegal immigration is having on North Carolina," Folwell said. "Some people have estimated that over the last 10 years, North Carolina's illegal immigration population growth rate - growth rate - has exceeded California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas."
It's unclear, though, whether the data collected would provide a complete picture of illegal immigration in the state. The bill would require principals to ask only about the citizenship of students. But any child born in the United States is a citizen, even if his or her parents are illegal.
Principals could not deny a child access to school based on immigration status. A 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case established the right to a basic public education for children, regardless of whether they are in the country legally or illegally.
Last month, officials with the federal justice and education departments sent amemo to state and local school agencies warning against asking families about immigration status, saying such a practice was inconsistent with federal law. The memo cited the Supreme Court ruling and Titles IV and VI of the Civil Rights Act.
Ann McColl, legislative director for the State Board of Education, said state education officials oppose the bill on legal grounds. School officials would be put in the position of violating federal law, she said.
"Their role is educating students, not finding out about their status," she said.
Question of 'safe'
At a hearing on the bill Tuesday, speakers took issue with the name of the act.
"You say Safe Students Act, but no one is going to feel safe, definitely not undocumented youth," said Viridiana Martinez, who was brought to the U.S. illegally as a 7-year-old and attended schools in Lee County.
"I would not have felt safe," Martinez added. "I would have felt targeted. I would have felt, you know, like someone was looking over me."
House Bill 744 would also require parents enrolling a child in public school to furnish a certified birth certificate and immunization records.
Most families already provide such documentation to local schools, which typically require birth certificates, vaccination records and proof of residence such as a water bill, a signed lease agreement or mortgage statement. Sometimes, though, people are allowed to provide a birth date in a family Bible or other nonofficial documents.
The state should have one requirement that applies to all, Folwell said.
"We should not have double standards," he said, "and the people of North Carolina are sick of it."
Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat, said the bill is not about education but about a federal immigration question.
The bill, Luebke said, "would obligate principals to spend a whole lot of time to look at birth certificates, to require parents to come in and talk about whether they and their children are citizens or not. This clearly is interfering with education."
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