SALT LAKE CITY — Absent comprehensive federal immigration reform in 2012, advocates for immigrants are bracing for another wave of state legislative proposals in 2012 intended to restrict children's access to education systems and public assistance programs.
Last year, legislation was introduced in more than a dozen states intended to ban immigrant children's access to public colleges and universities as well as impose stricter verification requirements to attend public schools and qualify for public assistance programs such as food stamps.
"We do expect to see more like bills in the future," said Wendy Cervantes, vice president of immigration and child rights policy for the national child advocacy organization First Focus.
Cervantes, addressing a national conference in Salt Lake City hosted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Migration and Refugee Services and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., said people of faith need to stand up against measures that curb access to education or public assistance programs. Immigrants comprise about 30 percent of the nation's low-income children, thus they are a particularly vulnerable population.
Children of immigrants account for nearly one-fourth all children in the United States and the vast majority are U.S. citizens.
While some states have leveled restrictions on immigrant children attending college — eliminating the option of paying in-state tuition rates or even banning students from enrolling in public colleges and universities — some states have contemplated measures to preclude undocumented children from attending public schools, Cervantes said.
These proposals conflict with a 1982 Supreme Court decision that struck down a Texas state statute that denied funding for education to illegal immigrant children. The court also struck down a municipal school district's attempt to charge tuition to undocumented children to make up for lost state funding.
Equally troubling, Cervantes said, are state legislative proposals intended to curb children's access to public assistance programs such as food stamps or health care programs.
"Many of these kids are in need of safety net programs but are underrepresented in these programs," Cervantes said.
While most immigrant children are American citizens by birthright, many live in mixed-status households. While the children may qualify for food stamps or other assistance, some families hesitate to apply for benefits because they fear undocumented family members will be turned over to federal immigration authorities.
To complicate matters, most states administer these programs differently. "The rules are very confusing and vary from state to state," Cervantes said. "It makes these very, very critical programs inaccessible to families that need them."
Many punitive legislative measures introduced in state legislatures were defeated due to intensive lobbying on the part of religious and child advocates, Cervantes said. In 2011, a few states considered measures to improve access to educational and public assistance programs.
Immigrant children seeking college educations were especially effective in defeating measures to repeal the in-state tuition rates some states extend to immigrant children who attend public colleges.
"These campaigns really made all the difference," she said.
In 2002, the Legislature passed a bill allowing undocumented students who complete three years of high school in Utah and graduate to be eligible for in-state college tuition. The law has survived numerous attempts to repeal it, said Dave Buhler, associate commissioner of public affairs for the Utah System of Higher Education.
For the 2010-11 school year, 716 noncitizen students are enrolled in Utah colleges and universities, among a total headcount of 152,337 students — or 0.47 percent of the entire student body.