Monday, September 21, 2009

Foreign Students in CNMI Schools

Recently, I have been hearing from various people who report a campaign of misinformation relating to the rights of foreign students in the public schools.

I have no idea whether there are rumors floating about or whether the concern is justified. However, it's always a good idea to know what the law is and what rights people have.

So this blog post is about the rights of foreign students to attend the CNMI public schools.

A mix of foreign and citizen students and teachers from the CNMI.

The basic rule is fairly simple: States (and territories, including the CNMI) cannot discriminate on the basis of immigration status in providing free, appropriate, public education for children. Basically, children have a right to such education. As applied here, any and all children (ages 6 to 16) in the CNMI are entitled to attend public schools.

The leading court case on the subject comes from the United States Supreme Court. Plyler vs. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982) held that even undocumented alien children were entitled to attend public schools and a Texas law that allowed otherwise was unconstitutional.

Justice Powell, in his concurring opinion, summarized the basic logic of the decision:

"...the interests relied upon by the State would seem to be insubstantial in view of the consequences to the State itself of wholly uneducated persons living indefinitely within its borders. By contrast, access to the public schools is made available to the children of lawful residents without regard to the temporary [457 U.S. 202, 240] nature of their residency in the particular Texas school district. The Court of Appeals and the District Courts that addressed these cases concluded that the classification could not satisfy even the bare requirements of rationality. "

The decision held the day with a slim majority of five to four. But it has not been overturned. It is still the law.

Public schools do not police immigration. Immigration is a matter for concern for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service), not for the CNMI Public School System.

Nor will public schools be reporting the immigration status of its students to the federal authorities. Student records are, for nearly all purposes, confidential. In most instances, the PSS should not even have the information about a student's immigration status.

Plyler vs. Doe created issues that are still being discussed, as shown in this 2007 University of Berkeley seminar. Issues about what happens to undocumented students after graduation; issues about English-proficiency classes; and continuing debate about the use of resources for non-citizens.

One interesting aspect of the debate is a finding that the percentage of illegal alien children in public schools today is about the same as it was when Plyler vs. Doe was decided. Another is the finding that the majority of teachers and administrators do not want to be concerned about a student's immigration status. Both of these findings (from the Berkeley seminar) support the continuing viability of Plyler vs. Doe.

And the courts continue to uphold the impact of Plyler vs. Doe. See, e.g. League of United Latin American Citizens vs. Wilson, 908 F. Supp. 755, 774, 785-786 (C.D. Cal. 1997).

Plyler vs. Doe was determined on the basis of the U.S. equal protection clause. That law applies in the CNMI. So foreign students, whether temporarily present with legal status, or residing indefinitely/permanently here with or without documented status, are entitled to free, appropriate, public education in the CNMI elementary, middle/junior, and high schools.

Undoubtedly as the U.S. continues to consider issues of immigration reform, the on-going vitality of Plyler vs. Doe will be considered; it highlights some of the core issues around immigration.

The change of CNMI's immigration from CNMI control to U.S. control does not change the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution; it does not change the rights of a foreign child to a free public education.

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