Illinois school agency backs immigrant students

ELMWOOD PARK, Ill. — The school board in this western suburb of Chicago achieved national notoriety last week in a case involving its denial of the right of an immigrant youth to enroll in its high school.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that public schools cannot bar immigrants, Elmwood Park School District 401 sought to bar a 14-year-old Ecuadorian girl from enrolling in classes here.

The school board was given a sharp rebuff, however, when state education officials voted Feb. 23 to cut off funding to the district, resulting in a potential $3.5 million hole in its $30 million budget. The school board promptly reversed its decision.

“We hope this sends a message not only to Elmwood Park but to all the districts in the state of Illinois that the Illinois State Board of Education will not tolerate such practices and will take swift and severe, unfortunately, action where necessary,” said Chairman Jesse Ruiz.

“As the son of a Mexican American who was here illegally for eight years, you would have denied me an education,” Ruiz continued. “You are not supposed to discriminate against any children based on any immigration status.” Immigration questions shouldn’t even be asked during enrollment, he said.

After the school board in this predominantly Polish and Italian community said it would change its enrollment criteria and no longer bar immigrant children, the ISBE agreed to restore state aid. As part of the agreement, the board promised not to ask questions about the immigration status of prospective enrollees and to train its employees in proper enrollment procedures. The state will monitor the situation, making sure future students are not improperly turned away.

The conflict began in November. An Ecuadorian teen, known only as Sharon M., tried to enroll in the Elmwood Park High School. She had a ‘B-class’ tourist visa. The district denied her entry, arguing she was neither an undocumented immigrant nor a legal resident.

District officials implied that she was in the country temporarily and would return to her home country, and therefore had no right to attend school. Officials allegedly told her they would report her to immigration authorities. Fearing that she would be deported, the teen left the district.

The next month, the school district tried to turn away a young girl from the Czech Republic. That student eventually sued the district, which later agreed to enroll her.

The issue is especially important in Illinois, with a growing Latino student population, including many immigrants who are not legal residents.

Maria Vasques from Mexico is a stay-at-home mom. As she was folding her clothes at the local laundromat in Elmwood Park, she spoke to the PWW. She explained how immigrants work hard under terrible conditions, with bad jobs like cleaning houses, and are paid very little. She said the school district’s decision not allowing immigrant youth to attend was wrong and unfair.

“There is still a lot of discrimination in the entire country,” she said. “We are normal people. It’s not justifiable. We all have a right to learn.”