Law vs. law

A proposal to require principals to check students' citizenship quite possibly would be deemed illegal.

June 5, 2011 

Dale Folwell, a soft-spoken Republican state House member from Forsyth County, is respected in the chamber (where he's also speaker pro tem) as an expert on budget matters and a reasonable person. So his primary sponsorship of a bill to make school principals in North Carolina check the citizenship and immigration status of first-time students is frankly surprising.

It is off-the-wall, for one thing, conjuring an image of legislators having principals put on a federal officer's badge to round up illegal immigrants. Folwell defends his idea as more about collecting data the state could use to figure the expense of educating children who are in the country illegally, which is required under federal law. The measure would not be used for immigration enforcement, he says.

Folwell may know that, and mean it in his heart, but to a family of illegal immigrants who are employed by businesses winking at their status and who are attempting to get their kids educated, a principal's inquiries about citizenship might well cause them to keep their children out of school, which helps no one. And because children born in the United States are citizens even if their parents are not, just how "complete" would all this information be?

And then there's another complication. It's called established law.

A right to schooling

Next year will be the 30th anniversary of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said all children who are U.S. residents, whether they're here legally or illegally, are entitled to basic public education.

The federal government does not look kindly on individuals or governments that defy a ruling of the nation's highest court. That's one reason that last month, the federal Department of Education and Department of Justice sent written warnings to state and local school officials that asking families about their immigration status would be inconsistent with federal law.

So not only is the law clear on Folwell's proposal, the timing couldn't be worse. It's like opening a pack of chewing gum in the principal's office.

Were such a law to be passed, it would likely inflame the debate over illegal immigration in many North Carolina communities where the population of illegal immigrants is substantial, and in those communities, many such families would be faced with a horrible and unfair choice: enroll their kids and take a chance that the information might be used against them some day, or keep their kids out of school and in effect punish them for something, being in America, over which they had no control.

Then the state would have to defend its bad law in courtrooms where the Supreme Court decision would be invoked time and time again as the clock moved on the public's dime and the already diminished public coffers were further depleted by a foolish and hopeless cause.

D.C. decisions

Let there be no misunderstanding. The issue of illegal immigration in this country is a festering one, made worse and more confusing by a Congress that for decades has had a bipartisan, cowardly fear of trying to revamp and clarify immigration laws in view of the presence of millions of illegal immigrants who have been working in the country, some of them for decades.

No one on Capitol Hill seems to want to seek a reasonable compromise that makes our borders strong while recognizing the impracticality of trying to send 10 million or more people home.

But finding a solution is not the task of state legislators or school principals or, yes, of county sheriffs who have become more involved in the deportation process in the last few years.

Folwell's idea in practice would have the inevitable consequence, intended or not, of victimizing children whose only intention is to get an education, one to which America's highest court says they are entitled.

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