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Teachers Face Tough Decisions Regarding Illegal Immigrants

Jan 02, 2019

There is estimated to be about 11 million illegal immigrants currently enrolled in school systems throughout the United States. The U.S. Department of Education and the Justice Department have stated that all children are by law allowed 'equal access to public education.' Yet those residing in the United States without proper authorization are violating federal law. On which side should teachers fall?

By Harrison Howe

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A Moral and Legal Obligation

There are teachers who often suspect, or even know, that a student is an 'undocumented child', or illegal immigrant. In many cases, these teachers simply look the other way.

Most schools, and teachers, operate on a 'Don't ask, don't tell' policy. Many teachers simply feel it is their obligation to help students no matter what their immigration status. Georgia high school teacher Sean McKenzie might have said it best when he told the Huffington Post in July, 'You've got a kid in front of you, you're supposed to help them.'

And by and large, help them they do. Some educators may even go above and beyond to assist promising students even when they know that student does not have citizenship. For instance, in Calhoun, Georgia, McKenzie tells of a Mexican student who he knew came to the U.S. alone. The student was housed by a teacher and eventually attended college, where he earned a nursing degree. In 2000, then-school superintendent Rich Fischer and then-principal Pat Hyland helped a young Filipino student, a non-resident, find a scholarship to San Francisco State University. At one point, the two administrators even considered adopting the teen.

Hyland admits to helping other students who are illegal immigrants get to college. 'We are sort of an underground support network for a lot of kids who come to us,' she said.

Will State Crackdowns on Immigration Have an Impact?

Generally, teachers and school administrators like Fischer and Hyland across the country are just going along with the Department of Education and the Justice Department: providing an education to all children.

New and tougher laws on illegal immigration, such as those adopted in Alabama and Georgia, could affect how teachers are supposed to handle undocumented students. In Alabama, the law requires schools to report student immigration statuses. The law is being challenged by civil rights groups. Some say parts of the law could be viewed as racial profiling.

In the meantime, national education groups come right out and say that it's best if schools not become involved with immigration issues. Schools in most states do not ask about families about their immigration status. And for the most part, teachers simply feel that their first responsibility is to teach. 'We're educators,' Fischer, now retired, recently told the Associated Press. 'We don't work for the I.N.S.'

And what of the Filipino student helped by Fischer and Hyland? He went on to excel at San Francisco State University and intern at The Washington Post. Fischer and Hyland helped him get a driver's license. The internship led to a job with the newspaper. In 2008 the former student, Jose Antonio Vargas, went on to become one of a team of journalists who covered the massacre at Virginia Tech and would ultimately, along with his fellow reporters, win a Pulitzer Prize.

All because two school administrators cared more about a young man's education than his citizenship.

An overhaul of the No Child Left Behind bill by the Obama Administration seeks deeper educational reform.

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