THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
PHOENIX — Republican officeholders critical of a federal judge's decision to fine the state heavily if it doesn't improve programs for students learning English are pointing a finger of blame at illegal immigration.
The judge's order in a 13-year-old lawsuit would impose daily fines starting at $500,000 and rising to $2 million on the state if the Legislature fails to adequately fund programs for an estimated 160,000 children attending Arizona public schools.
Arizona has become the busiest entry point on the southern border for illegal immigrants, and concerns related to illegal immigration are being increasingly voiced in connection with public-policy issues ranging from health care to identity theft. Meanwhile, candidates from both major parties have identified illegal immigration as a leading issue in 2006 statewide races in Arizona.
Several key state officials reacted to U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins' order by saying they'll work to improve the programs but also by declaring that it shouldn't be forgotten that illegal immigration — while not a primary legal issue in the school-funding case itself — is a root cause of the problem facing the state.
"There's a legitimacy to the argument that if people had not broken the law to get into our country that the taxpayers of our state wouldn't be having to absorb the financial burden of trying to educate those children," said Senate President Ken Bennett, R-Prescott.
Bennett commented after state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne reiterated his call for increased federal funding to the state to pay education costs resulting from the federal government's failure to protect the border.
Horne also expressed frustration that Collins wouldn't rule on whether the state could count federal dollars as potentially available to help pay for the English-learning programs.
"It's a big mistake to not count federal funds when the federal government created the problem in the first place," Horne said. "We've asked the congressional delegation to try to get us another $700 million to help out with a problem that they've created."
Even before the latest ruling, other Republican officeholders had linked the prospect of increased costs for English-learning instruction to immigration.
House Speaker Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix, said in June that Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano's proposal to spend more on English-learning instruction would produce "Mexico's best school district north of the border."
House Speaker Pro Tem Bob Robson, R-Chandler, later wrote in a newspaper commentary that Arizona could see its English-learning costs soar because the state is "saddled with a flood of both illegal immigrant kids and the children of illegal immigrants."
However, whether students are illegal immigrants or children of illegal immigrants hasn't been a factor in the case, largely because of a 23-year-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling, said Tim Hogan, a lawyer for the class-action plaintiffs in the English-learning case.
Citing the equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the 1982 ruling by the U.S. high court overturned a Texas law that withheld state funding for the education of illegal immigrant children and allowed districts to deny enrollment to those children.
"The law is clear — unequivocally clear," Hogan said. "They can try and change it all they want but in the meantime they've got to comply with it."
Besides, Hogan noted, national research by the Urban Institute indicates that most of the children requiring English-learning instruction are U.S. citizens.
Napolitano, while verbally bashing the federal government on several fronts regarding border and immigration issues, has cited education concerns when calling for action on the English-learning issue.
"She believes that Arizonans need an educated, English-speaking work force," Napolitano spokeswoman Jeanine L'Ecuyer said.