"Toddler X, you can't attend this preschool. We're learning numbers and colors and getting ready to go to school. But your mommy and daddy came to this country illegally, so you'll have to wait until you're old enough for kindergarten and then do the best you can . . ." Shortly after California passed its controversial Proposition 187--prohibiting social services to illegal aliens--the state found itself defending the law's constitutionality in court.
Arizona may soon be joining California before the bench.
During the next few weeks, the Arizona Board of Education will begin accepting applications from schools and private organizations for new preschool programs. The programs get little tykes ready for school, and teach their parents basic education so they can help the kids at home.
Officially, it's known as the Family Literacy Program, tucked into what started out as Success by Six and ended up as the Arizona Children and Families Stability Act.
And in the wee hours of the last legislative session, while the politics ran thick and the deals were being cut every which way, Arizona lawmakers voted to restrict the program to children whose parents are legal residents.
The law is Arizona's first to deny educational services to the children of undocumented residents. The state's health and welfare plans had already included legal status requirements.
The new law refuses even children who are U.S. citizens--anyone born on U.S. soil is a citizen--if their parents are not legal residents. State Representative Joe Eddie Lopez, who also sits on the Phoenix Union High School District Board, estimates that up to 30 percent of the children enrolled in inner-city schools fit that description.
The law's detractors claim it's unconstitutional, discriminatory and part of a larger panic over immigration.
"It's horribly, facially, unconstitutional," says Stephen Montoya, a Phoenix attorney and Hispanic activist.
"It's inevitable that it will be challenged. There are members of the community out there who have been informed by lawyers that they are looking for such a case."
The Hispanic bar association, Chicanos por la Causa and various other organizations are against the law's restriction on parental citizenship.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said that it is unconstitutional to refuse to educate children in public schools based on the children's legal status. Arizona's legislation dances around the edge, dealing with preschool literacy programs. Educators argue that the $1 million pilot program will exclude many of the children who need the program most--children who will start public school without basic skills. "Are we trying to help families in this state or are we trying to put up roadblocks to helping families?" says former state representative Linda Beezley, a Phoenix Democrat who voted against the legislation. "Whether their parents are legal or illegal, children in this country have a right to a public education. And I think that's where it all starts. In some way, they're trying to find a way to keep these children out of our public school system because of the tax dollars it's costing. I don't agree with that, even to the smallest extent."
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But many Republicans--who softened the original citizens-only limitation to include other people who "are lawfully present in the United States" in a compromise to get the bill passed--see it differently.
"Someone who is clearly here illegally would not qualify. And I don't have a problem with that," says state Representative Susan Gerard, who headed the House Health Committee that dealt with the law. "How could you say that a person has a right to certain government services if they're here illegally? Doesn't make any sense to me."
But children born in the United States are citizens, regardless of the legal status of their parents. And that, Montoya says, is where the state has run awry of the Constitution, which may put the whole program on hold over a legal challenge. "That would really be unfortunate," Gerard says. "No one will be a winner; we'll spend a whole lot of money in court. But, once again, it's another lawyer full-employment act. I suppose they benefit then." Meanwhile, Montoya and others are afraid of leaving the door open to more restrictions against immigrants, especially in the educational arena.
"It's surprising that they would do this in the first place, and I fear of what they might do next," he says.