Proposal would require Missouri schools to verify students' immigration status

The Kansas City StarJanuary 12, 2012 

Missouri could be the next battleground in a nationwide fight over tougher immigration laws.

State Sen. Will Kraus, a Lee’s Summit Republican, is sponsoring a bill that would mandate that all public schools verify the immigration status of enrollees. It also would require law enforcement officers to check immigration status on all stops when they have reasonable cause, and create a state misdemeanor for not carrying proper citizenship documentation.

The U.S. Department of Justice last year sued to block similar laws after they were passed in Alabama and Arizona. Federal judges have blocked implementation of parts of the laws in both states, with the U.S. Supreme Court agreeing to hear arguments on Arizona’s law sometime this year.

Vanessa Crawford, executive director of Missouri Immigration and Refugee Advocates, said Kraus’ bill unfairly focuses on immigrants and their families and opens the state up to future litigation.

“This bill is a really bad idea,” Crawford said. “This would force police and school officials to act as immigration agents, and would result in innocent people facing harassment. And passing a law that will undoubtedly end up in court is irresponsible.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld its 1982 ruling that children have a right to attend public schools regardless of their immigration status.

But Kraus said his bill does nothing to challenge that notion. “This is simply an attempt to track noncitizens in public schools in order to get an accurate set of data,” he said.

The motivation for the bill, Kraus said, was his push last session to pass legislation forcing Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat, to sue the federal government to recoup the cost of enforcing federal immigration laws.

“One of the objections we encountered was that there was no known cost to the state. Based on those comments, I asked my office to reach out to state agencies to find out who actually tracked the cost of illegal immigration on Missouri taxpayers,” Kraus said. “The results were underwhelming as we found most agencies have no idea of the true cost to taxpayers.”

Kraus’ bill would require that schools turn data collected over to the state Board of Education, which would compile and submit an annual report to the General Assembly. The report would contain information regarding immigration classifications of enrolled students and numbers of participants in English as a second language programs, as well as the cost to the state of their education.

The report also would attempt to analyze the impact of educating noncitizens on the quality of education provided to students who are citizens.

Even though schools would be required to ask new students for either a birth certificate or proof they are in the country legally, they would still able to attend school even if they or their parents are in the country illegally, Kraus said.

Public disclosure of information that identifies a student would be prohibited.

Critics, however, dismissed the bill as nothing more than a step toward revoking the rights of immigrant children to an education.

“This law will instill fear in immigrant families that will result in children being pulled out of school,” Crawford said.

After the Alabama law went into effect, schools reported higher absentee rates for Hispanic students. Airick Leonard West, board president of Kansas City Public Schools, said a similar reaction can be expected in Missouri.

“At a time when our district needs to gain the trust and cooperation of parents to increase our average daily attendance — one of the standards of accreditation — this bill sabotages that effort by creating a hostile and intimidating relationship between our district and its families,” West said.

As for the police provisions of the bill, Kraus said officers already check immigration status after arrests. His bill simply would extend that to include all stops, he argued. And the new state misdemeanor simply mirrors federal law.

“None of these proposed items have any significant punitive provision above what is already in current federal law,” Kraus said.

So far, the bill — S.B. 590 — has not been scheduled for a hearing. Kraus said he plans to discuss it with Republican leadership in the hopes of making the legislation a priority this session. He also expected any legal challenges to similar laws around the country to be finalized before any Missouri law would go into effect.

Groups opposing the measure, however, hope to derail it before it gains traction. Crawford points to efforts her organization launched during the last session that helped kill a bill requiring driver’s license tests to be administered only in English, and eliminated versions currently offered in 11 other languages.

To read more, visit www.kansascity.com.

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