‘They don’t even speak English’: GOP lawmaker weighs barring immigrant children from public schools

Layton Rep. Trevor Lee is listed as the sponsor for a constitutional amendment to keep immigrant children lacking permanent legal status from enrolling in public schools, but is substituting a resolution to urge Congress to pass Republican-backed immigration reforms instead.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students of Escalante Elementary in Salt Lake City head back to class, January, 25, 2021. Republican Rep. Trevor Lee is the sponsor of a proposed constitutional amendment to bar immigrant children who lack permanent legal status from attending Utah's public schools.

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Republican state lawmaker Trevor Lee thinks Utah should, at some point, consider barring immigrant children lacking permanent legal status from attending the state’s public schools — but not yet.

The Layton representative is listed as the sponsor of a proposed constitutional amendment to “limit the public education system to children who are citizens of the United States or legal residents of the United States.”

Text for the legislation showed up online Wednesday evening, then disappeared. Shortly after it was posted again Thursday night, it included a substitute resolution proposed by Lee that instead “condemns the federal government for not responding appropriately to the crisis of illegal immigration” and urges Congress to pass a bill that cracks down on immigration.

Congressional Republican-backed HR2, or “Secure the Border Act,” would require the federal government to finish building a wall along the southern border and amp up surveillance there, impose drastic restrictions on the asylum process and require all employers to verify workers’ citizenship status.

Lee told The Salt Lake Tribune that he never meant for the legislation to be a state constitutional amendment, and said legislative staff drafted it wrong. But he still thinks such an amendment may be needed.

House Minority Leader Angela Romero pushed back on Lee’s claim before praising the nonpartisan legislative staff, saying, “There’s a process that we follow, and nobody’s bill would be put out there publicly, ... that elected official would have had to approve it.”

If the Republican state lawmaker is reelected this year, Lee said Utahns could see the proposed amendment, as it was initially written, again.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Trevor Lee, R-Layton, talks during the House Education Committee meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. He is the sponsor of HJR12, which initially was a proposed constitutional amendment to bar immigrant children who lack permanent legal status from enrolling in public schools, but he is substituting with a resolution to encourage federal action on immigration.

“We say, ‘Hey, here’s a bunch of kids, they don’t even speak English, but it’s your problem. Here you go,’” Lee said. “And that’s not right.”

Nearly 9% of K-12 students statewide are learning English, according to data from the Utah State Board of Education. Federal laws prohibit discrimination against them, and requires schools to provide English learners with an equal education. In the Salt Lake City School District, where four elementary schools will close next year largely due to declining enrollment, more than one out of every five students is an English learner.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2022 American Community Survey estimates, Utah has nearly 300,000 foreign-born residents. Just over 170,000 of those people are not U.S. citizens.

And while it’s unclear how many school-age children are not citizens, the Census Bureau estimates that approximately 27.5% percent of Utahns born outside the U.S. are under 18 years old.

An attempt to amend the state constitution to keep those children out of public schools would likely be challenged in federal court.

In 1975, the Texas Legislature similarly tried to keep children who were not “legally admitted” to the country from enrolling in the state’s public schools. Ruling in a class-action lawsuit for Mexican children living in Texas who could not prove their legal status, the U.S. Supreme Court said in Plyler v. Doe that efforts to keep undocumented kids out of public schools violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

Children of immigrants lacking permanent legal status “can affect neither their parents’ conduct nor their own status,” the decision read, and “legislation directing the onus of a parent’s misconduct against his children does not comport with fundamental conceptions of justice.”

Lee said he thinks the question should be brought back in front of the Supreme Court, though, and believes states should be able to play a bigger role in shaping immigration policies.

“It’s a different world. Things have changed,” Lee said. “We’re confident the Supreme Court would rule in our favor that the state should have the right to handle these issues on our own.”

In order for an amendment to be added to the Utah Constitution, it would need the approval of two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate. Then, a majority of Utahns who vote in the next general election would have to vote “yea” to amend the Constitution.

The substitute version of the bill — a resolution to encourage Congress to pass HR2 — only needs the support of a majority of lawmakers.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, speaks during a rally at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. She is the president of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators.

“When it comes to people who are aspiring to have a better life, I can’t even think about how it feels when people pick up the paper and they see how somebody could look at them not as a person,” said Romero, who also heads the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators. “We always talk about doing things the Utah way, we talk about Utah being the best place to live and being inclusive. When we do legislation like this ... I’m wondering whether this is his personal belief or if he’s following a national agenda.”

The introduction of Lee’s legislation comes five years after dozens of Utah government, business and religious leaders came together to reaffirm the Utah Compact on Immigration, which encouraged “common-sense immigration reforms.”

Under one of the of the compact’s five pillars, “Families,” the compact said, “We champion policies that support families and improve the health, education and well-being of all Utah children.”

Among the signees were multiple education-related entities, including the Utah School Superintendents Association, Utah System of Higher Education, Granite School District, Jordan School District, Salt Lake City School District, Salt Lake Community College, and the University of Utah.