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Teachers in middle of debate over immigrant kids

"We're educators. We don't work for the I.N.S.," said one teacher.

When an award-winning journalist recently revealed he’s an illegal immigrant, two of the key players in his tale turned out to be educators who helped keep his secret. It’s the kind of story teachers and principals scattered across the country know well.

With some 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., educators increasingly find themselves caught between their obligation to educate each child and conflicting guidance, or simply no direction at all, about whether to help such students beyond the classroom.

Law officers and lawmakers in some states want schools to help spot illegal immigrants. Federal authorities remind school officials that every child is entitled to an education. National education groups echo that but recommend that schools avoid getting involved when it comes to students’ citizenship issues.

Ultimately, the adults in each classroom have to decide for themselves how far they will go.

Rich Fischer and Pat Hyland were school administrators in affluent Mountain View, Calif., home of Google and other tech companies, in 2000 as a young Filipino student named Jose Antonio Vargas was nearing graduation. He excelled in school but wasn’t going to college because of his residency status and the high cost.

“We’re educators. We don’t work for the I.N.S.,” Fischer, now retired as school superintendent, told the Associated Press, adding that teachers across the country face the same issues more and more.

“Actually, I think if you put a number to it, I think it would look epidemic and tragic.”

Fischer and Hyland considered adopting Vargas, and eventually found him a scholarship to San Francisco State University. Vargas was a college standout, eventually landing an internship and then a full-time job at the Washington Post, getting the internship after Fischer, Hyland and others helped him get a driver’s license.

“I’m not really sure if I could have made it without them,” Vargas, part of a team of Post journalists who won a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre, told the AP.

Hyland, who was the principal at Mountain View High School when Vargas was there, said the help she provided was “sort of humanitarian, in my mind.”

She has helped other illegal immigrants find a way to college. Many stop short, though, out of fear, she said.

“It’s a conundrum. … What are we doing to help this child survive and help this child reach his or her potential?” she said. “Educators are stuck in that position. We are sort of an underground support network for a lot of kids who come to us.”

Hyland and Fischer said they’re not overly concerned about legal consequences from helping Vargas.

“When you kind of put the human factor into it and say ‘Well, my gosh, I’m not helping somebody rob a bank here. I’m actually helping somebody become a productive citizen,’ it feels different,” Fischer said.

Teachers in Georgia, where a new law cracking down on illegal immigrants is being challenged in court, have been supporting students for years in many of the same ways.

Sean McKenzie, a high school social studies teacher in Calhoun, Ga., said he learned one former student came to the United States alone from Mexico at 14. The boy, whom McKenzie declined to name because it could make him a target for state authorities, worked hard to pass the state’s graduation test.

A fellow teacher tried to adopt the teen, and housed him for at least five years. But it didn’t open any path to citizenship. The student has since earned a nursing degree but can’t get a job. He is thinking of leaving Georgia to find a job washing dishes or anything he can find.

“I just want a life,” the student recently told McKenzie.

Michael Simpson, a National Education Association attorney, said the teacher’s union doesn’t view the issue as something it needs to educate teachers about.

The group issued a legal guide in 2009 with the National School Boards Association related to teaching “undocumented children” as more school attorneys inquired on the topic. The guide is mostly limited to explaining the Supreme Court’s ruling that such students have a right to a public education. It advised schools not to ask about students’ immigration status because it might discourage enrollment.

“We’re all kind of left to fend on our own and make our own interpretations for what is right for ourselves and for our students,” Hyland said. “I would far prefer that repairs to the system happen so that we’re not put in this position and that the Joses of the world have more options that are legally available.”

Elementary and middle school teachers may never know their students’ immigration status because young students often don’t know themselves. Still, some students reveal personal details.

Last year, a Montgomery County, Md., second-grader stood up during a conversation about immigration and told first lady Michelle Obama, “My mom doesn’t have papers.”

School officials in the Washington suburb worked to protect the girl’s identity. The principal said they don’t ask questions about immigration status but if families want to share, that’s fine.

Alabama’s Legislature recently passed a law requiring schools to report the immigration status of students. Anticipating such policies, the U.S. Education Department and Justice Department issued a joint letter to school districts in May reminding them they are required to provide all children equal access to public education.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently said the department is closely monitoring policies in Alabama and elsewhere.

“What we don’t want to do is have a chilling effect. …To have more students leave school or more students drop out…would not be good for children, communities or the country,” he said.

For McKenzie, the Georgia teacher, “it’s a no-brainer: You’ve got a kid in front of you, you’re supposed to help them.”

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