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2 Arizona School Districts Asked About Citizenship On Enrollment Forms, Violating A 1982 Supreme Court Ruling

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Two Arizona school districts, Coolidge Unified and St. John's Unified, have been accused of violating a U.S. Supreme Court ruling related to citizenship questions and students. The  problems were uncovered by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or MALDEF. The organization sent letters to the districts asking them to get rid of any reference to citizenship or Social Security numbers. With me to talk more about this is Juan Rodriguez, staff attorney for MALDEF. Juan, first of all, what do we need to know about the Supreme Court case, this Plyler decision?

JUAN RODRIGUEZ: Sure. The Plyler decision was a decision the Supreme Court made in 1982. And it has significant implications for the education of undocumented children. That case involved a Texas statute which allowed school districts to deny enrollment to undocumented children, and it imposed funding limitations on school districts that did allow undocumented individuals to enroll. The Supreme Court in that case struck that law down and held that undocumented children have an equal right to a free public education.

GOLDSTEIN: So two districts in Arizona recently violated the decision. One, Coolidge has stepped back saying they would comply. I'm not sure if you could tell me about St. John's, but how common is it to see schools do this — considering it's a case, as you mentioned, which is nearly 40 years old — and yet we still have a lot of controversy among some based on undocumented immigrants?

RODRIGUEZ: As of now, we don't have any kind of indication that this is a very widespread problem. We did do, we do occasionally do spot checks of school districts to make sure they're compliant with the law. And that's how we discovered that each of, Coolidge and St. Johns were asking for citizenship status information. I will add that St. John's did contact me and let me know that they're looking back at their enrollment forms to correct them. So my sense is that each of Coolidge and St. John's have been quite prompt in moving to correct the issues. And this may have been an issue of not understanding the law rather than it being an intentional exclusionary tactic.

GOLDSTEIN: Is it possible that the paperwork was old or possible that someone had changed it and didn't inform folks? What are the possibilities there?

RODRIGUEZ: I mean, my sense is, because this is a 1982 decision and the Department of Justice and the Department of Education issued guidance directing districts to not ask for this kind of information in ... 2014. My understanding is that the school districts may have put up those enrollment forms somewhat recently, at least after this guidance was quite clear. But again, because of how prompt they acted to correct, my sense is that they maybe did not understand what the law was with regard to enrollment forms.

GOLDSTEIN: So then when it comes to education, when it comes to immigration at any level, certainly Arizona is very familiar with what happened with SB 1070. Why are there — I mean, obviously, there's violating the law, I certainly get that — but in terms of even the spirit, why is it such a concern to ask these citizenship-related questions when it comes to young students like this?

RODRIGUEZ: In that regard, I actually think the Plyler decision discusses that quite well. So if a family sees citizenship status questions on an enrollment form, they might, one, think that their child might not be enrolled if they're undocumented. But they also may be concerned that that information can be turned over to immigration enforcement. And that will deter children from enrolling in school. In the Plyler decision, the Supreme Court focused on how faultless children were. They have no control over their lawful status. They had no control entering the U.S. lawfully. It also focused on the impact of these children in the future. If children are deterred from enrolling in school, they may be illiterate, and they'll carry that lack of education into the future, into their adulthood and their lives. And it will affect their livelihood and ability to earn a decent living. And the Supreme Court in that case also recognized that because a lot of undocumented children are likely to stay within the United States, that will impact the United States and the fact that you will not have these individuals being productive members of society.

GOLDSTEIN: Certainly of the last three and a half years or so with the Trump administration, there's been concern not only about actions taken place by, let's say, the Department of Justice, et cetera. There's also been concern about just the rhetoric. Is there a concern that maybe the organization might need to look into things like this more often? Because there just might be sentiment out there that people are more willing to express publicly?

RODRIGUEZ: Right. And that was a major factor that weighed in on our decision to do these spot checks, because it's absolutely true that there's a rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric. And the American society is very divided on immigration issues, which heightens immigrant families' fear at this time. So if they see something like a citizenship status question on form, we're really living in a time where that will have a much stronger impact on these families.

GOLDSTEIN: Juan Rodriguez is a staff attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or MALDEF. Juan, thanks very much for the time today and take care.

RODRIGUEZ: Of course. Thank you for having me, Steve.

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.