Janet Marino says she isn’t asking for much from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Just a chance to visit classes on occasion to see how her two disabled children are doing. Or to be a chaperone on a field trip. Or to volunteer during a classroom activity.
It’s what any parent would want, she believes.
But undocumented immigrants like Marino, 34, aren’t treated like other parents. They don’t have the Social Security numbers or photo IDs that are required by CMS for criminal background checks.
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That essentially bans undocumented immigrants – people not in the country legally – from participating in school activities. Yet, children in the United States are entitled to attend public schools, regardless of immigration status.
“I want to get involved in my children’s schooling. Being the mother of a disabled child, I’d like to be there when my son overcomes hurdles, but they won’t allow it,” said Marino, noting her two children are U.S. citizens.
“It’s hard enough to be a single mom of a normal child, but being a mother of disabled children? The schools should be helping me rather than being an obstacle. I don’t like to say it, but it feels like racism. I don’t see them treating white parents this way.”
CMS officials maintain background checks are universally applied to weed out sex offenders and others who pose an “unacceptable risk to students or to the school system.” This can include those who might cause physical, sexual or emotional harm, steal or damage property, or violate CMS confidentiality procedures.
School officials acknowledge the problems faced by some immigrant parents and are working toward a solution. They also say they need to “manage perceptions” that the existing policy discriminates against immigrants.
“All parents have the right to go to school and visit children during lunch, request meetings with teachers and attend teacher conferences,” said CMS spokeswoman LaTarzja Henry. “(But) parents who don’t have a Social Security number can’t tutor or mentor students, can’t go on field trips, can’t participate in field days, and can’t do anything that would cause them to be alone with a child on campus.”
The conflict becomes more obvious as the immigrant population rises.
CMS doesn’t know how many undocumented students and parents are in the system. English proficiency is often used as an indicator. Currently, the district reports students with limited English skills account for 25 percent to 52 percent of the student body at 15 schools in the county.
“And this isn’t just about Latinos. There are a lot of families that come to us from other countries without documentation,” Henry said.
Arguments have been made that CMS could solve the issue by accepting other forms of identification, such as passports or consular IDs, as some other districts have done.
CMS recently created a work team to explore alternatives. The first meeting will be in July and members will include representatives of the immigrant community, business leaders, parents and CMS staff.
Recommendations to the school board could be crafted as early as September, for possible implementation in the fall, CMS officials said.
However, immigrant advocates are wary, noting CMS has been aware of the issue since at least June 2012, when concerns were voiced at a community forum on the state of Mecklenburg County’s 23,600 Hispanic students.
More recently, the policy has also been criticized repeatedly during an ongoing series of public meetings staged by the city’s recently created Immigrant Integration Task Force.
And last month, Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter was asked during a meeting of the Latin American Chamber of Commerce if he would intercede on behalf of immigrant parents.
While the mayor has no authority over the schools, Clodfelter said he’d bring up the matter with CMS officials as part of a broader discussion of issues.
Members of the Immigrant Integration Task Force say this is the mayor’s chance to set the tone for how Charlotte deals with immigrants. The task force is looking for ways the community can become more welcoming of immigrants. Final recommendations are to be considered next year by the City Council.
Attorney Stefan Latorre, chair of the Immigrant Integration Task Force, said he believes Clodfelter could send a strong pro-immigrant message if he lobbied CMS on behalf of parents seeking a policy change. And he’d like to see that happen before the task force makes its recommendations next year.
Parent participation important
Joanna Rivera of Charlotte’s Latin American Coalition believes CMS has a moral obligation to find an alternative. Currently, Latino students have a 71 percent rate of graduating on time from CMS, compared to a 91 percent rate for white students.
“This is doing harm. It’s important for children to see their parents at the school, participating in activities. It helps with self-esteem,” said Rivera, adding that she thinks this is a problem the community would rather ignore.
“You’ve got parents who want to be involved and you’ve got those children begging their parents to be there. What those children don’t understand is the risk those parents take when they go to a school.”
Those risks include the possibility of being arrested for driving without a license or being deported, she says.
Manolo Betancur, owner of Las Delicias Bakery, pressed Clodfelter to get involved during the Latin American Chamber of Commerce meeting last month.
Betancur recently hosted a meeting of undocumented parents at his business. Several said they must sit at separate tables when they show up to share lunch with their children in the cafeteria.
School officials say this is often done because there is a lack of space in the cafeteria, but some immigrant parents see it differently.
“It’s like when blacks and whites had to sit apart,” Betancur said. “It’s wrong. You know, we are not coming from another planet. We’re human and it’s against American beliefs that we are relegated to sit at different tables.”
Estela Hernandez, 41, is one such parent. She and her husband of 10 years are undocumented and they have three children, two of whom are registered in CMS schools.
She supports the district’s stand on requiring criminal background checks, but insists it can be accomplished with something other than a Social Security number.
“I’m trying not to take it personal, but I believe this (policy) is holding my children back,” Hernandez said. “How can I help them to do better if I can’t be in class to watch?”
Background checks ‘nonnegotiable’
School board chairwoman Mary McCray recently met with a group of undocumented parents and says she is optimistic that a solution will be found.
McCray says the district has been working behind the scenes to break down barriers for immigrant parents. An example, she says, was last year’s decision to make it easier for such parents to visit their children during lunch at school.
It’s common for parents and their children to sit at separate tables during lunch, though she’s aware that some perceive that as discrimination.
She’s also aware that undocumented immigrants remain controversial in the community, but says that’s not a factor when it comes to the business of educating children.
“This is not discrimination. Not doing background checks is nonnegotiable. Otherwise, you do not know who is coming into your buildings,” McCray said.
“But we have to understand that (undocumented immigrants) are in our community and their children are in our schools and want to learn. It’s just the way it is now. As board chair, I represent everybody, documented or not.”
Cost is a factor
Currently, the district performs criminal background checks each night on 107,000 people registered to be CMS volunteers, officials said. When criminal activity appears on a volunteer’s record – something that happens almost daily – Charlotte-Mecklenburg police do a review to see if it is serious enough to disqualify a volunteer, CMS officials said.
The big challenge, Henry said, is to find some other form of identification that will allow criminal background checks to continue.
In addition to passports and consular IDs, finger-printing is used by some of the nation’s larger school districts. But that wouldn’t work for CMS, Henry said, because it’s expensive and would require setting up a new system.
“What’s important to understand is that we really do want all of our families to be engaged, and this (team’s) work will help us move closer to our goal,” Henry said.