AZ Sheriff: Schools Employees Should Question Children About their Legal Status

May 29, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

If Sheriff Clarence Dupnik gets his way, children in Arizona schools may be asked to answer questions that have nothing to do with reading, writing and arithmetic. According to an article in today's Arizona Daily Star, the Pima County Sheriff wants Arizona school employees to ask their students whether they are in this country legally.

This idea is not a new one, and was previously rejected by the state of Arizona and the United States Supreme Court. In a legal opinion written in 1979, Arizona State Attorney General Jack LaSota stated that upon enrollment school officials could only inquire if children were Arizona residents. In 1982, the U. S. Supreme Court found such questioning to be illegal, overturning a Texas law that mandated school districts to refuse enrollment to anyone who couldn't prove legal residency.

Sheriff Dupnik is well aware of the U.S. law but wants to drag the issue back into court using Arizona schools and Arizona schoolchildren as a test case. This bothered Eva Dong, a member of the board of Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson, who expressed "surprise" that a sheriff would ask educators and school administrators "to go up against the law."

In explaining his reasoning, Sheriff Dupnik cited the enormous cost of education, specifically the cost incurred when educating students who speak a language other than English. The ruling of Plyer vs. Doe, the 1982 Supreme Court case which decided this issue, specifically sought to address the cost of educating those children, as well as the cost of not educating children, regardless of their legal status. Writing for the majority, Supreme Court Justice William Brennan wrote: "The deprivation of education takes an inestimable toll on the social, economic, intellectual, and psychological well-being of the individual, and poses an obstacle to individual achievement." Justice Brennan said that in voting against the Texas statute, the justices considered "its cost to the Nation and to the innocent children." Responding to the argument concerning the cost of the education itself, the Court acknowledged the high cost but said the statute was not an answer, saying the state of Texas did not "offer an effective method for dealing with the problem (of illegal immigration)." And the Court questioned whether singling out certain children would help the state as a whole: "The record does not show that exclusion of undocumented children is likely to improve the overall quality of education in the State."

Educators in Tucson who were interviewed for the article did not welcome the Sheriff's plan. They questioned whether children would have knowledge of their own legal status. They also questioned how appropriate it would be for educators to assume the role of immigration enforcers. The article quotes Nicholas Clement, superintendent of the Flowing Wells Unified School District, as saying, " Our function is not immigration, but to provide a quality education to kids who live in our district or who come in under open enrollment." And while some Arizona state sheriffs backed the idea, including controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of the Mexican border county of Santa Cruz was opposed, saying schools shouldn't be in the immigration business.

In the case of Plyer vs. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the attempt by the state of Texas to deny education to certain children: "imposes a lifetime hardship on a discrete class of children not responsible for their disabling status. These children can neither affect their parents status nor their own undocumented status."