A Florida High School Athletic Association rule that requires undocumented student athletes to report their immigration status to school officials violates state and national law, say several immigration officials and experts in and outside of Florida.
The FHSAA asks all “international students” who will participate in sports to fill out an EL4 form, which also requires them to present copies of immigration documents, birth certificates and translated academic transcripts from their home countries. The FHSAA has said any non-U.S. citizen is considered an international student.
However, the rule conflicts with an item under the “Equal Access for Immigrant Students” section of the Florida Consent Decree, which prohibits schools from asking about students’ and parents’ immigration status.
The consent decree is a voluntary agreement reached by state education officials and the Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy Inc., (META), a coalition of minority groups, in 1990.
The debate comes on the heels of an investigation of three Immokalee High School student-athletes who were asked to leave school after they were discovered to be over age. The three adults are Haitian citizens and all failed to file EL4 forms before playing sports, which may cost the school its football and soccer district and regional titles from 2005-06, FHSAA officials said.
Now, the investigation has moved beyond Immokalee. The FHSAA said all Collier schools and others throughout the state are in violation of this rule, which could render thousands of athletes ineligible.
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Naples High athletic director Ernie Modugno, who will take a seat on the FHSAA board in July, has said he disagrees with the FHSAA’s interpretation of the rule, citing Policy 17.B.13 in the FHSAA handbook that reads: “Pursuant to Federal law, an international student attending a public school is eligible to remain in the U.S. for a maximum of one year and must reimburse the public school for the cost of his/her U.S. education.”
The FHSAA’s board of directors will discuss federal immigration laws as they pertain to international students not in foreign exchange programs both today in the Legislative Committee session and with the entire board on Friday at their meeting in Jacksonville.
The athletic association maintains that the EL4 form is simply a tool used to determine whether athletes meet age requirements and has nothing to do with their immigration status, said John Stewart, the FHSAA’s commissioner.
“We’re not asking if they’re in the country legally and illegally,” Stewart said. “We’re just asking their age. There’s nothing at all wrong with having eligibility requirements for age. That’s been upheld everywhere.”
Stewart admitted international student-athletes have a right to an education but said school officials also need to know where an athlete is academically when they enter the ninth grade.
Still, athletic directors should have no knowledge of their players’ immigration status and should determine eligibility solely on current grades, said Roger Rice, an attorney of META, which is based in Massachusetts.
Playing sports, Rice said, is no different from any other extracurricular activity, such as playing violin or performing community service — neither of which require students to prove they are in the country legally.
“(The FHSAA guideline is) ridiculous. It’s so silly, absolutely absurd,” Rice said. “Of course, (coaches) aren’t filling out these EL4 forms. (The FHSAA) is not the border patrol or the Department of Homeland Security.”
Rice said the FHSAA is not only violating state law, but also the U.S. Constitution. The consent decree is based on the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plyler v. Doe, which states that undocumented students have the same right to attend public primary and secondary schools as do U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Denial of an education violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
The case states: “The undocumented status of these children does not establish a sufficient rational basis for denying them benefits that the State affords other residents ... no national policy is perceived that might justify the State in denying these children an elementary education.”
If the FHSAA does stand its ground in requiring all international students to fill out EL4 forms, it invades the privacy of thousands of immigrant student athletes in Florida, Rice said.
“If you live here, as in ‘This is my home. This is my residence,’ then your immigration status doesn’t matter,” Rice said.
Another facet of the debate deals with the definition of what is an international student. The FHSAA considers an international student anyone who is not a U.S. citizen, which also includes students who possess permanent resident cards, also known as green cards. Foreign exchange students also are included.
Students with a J-1 visa and those with an F-1 visa would be allowed to play sports, according to the EL4 form. J-1 visa holders are exchange students while F-1 visa holders pay to go to school for a maximum of one year. It is unclear whether any of the three overaged students had either visa.
But student athletes similar to the three Immokalee adults would not be considered international students because they came to the U.S. with the intention of living here, said Bill Strassberger, spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, formerly known as Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The intent to stay in the U.S. is clear, he said, because the adults decided to enroll in school and live here for longer than one year, he said.
“All of the forms mentioned are not relevant for these athletes because they wouldn’t be international students,” Strassberger said.
The real issue at hand, he said, is meeting age and residency requirements to enroll in a Florida public school. In the Immokalee case, the three former students were over age and “there is a good chance they will be deported,” Strassberger said. If they were not over age, he said, they still would have a right to attend school, athletes or not.
“Schools are not agents for immigration law, but they just happened to find undocumented adults who went to this school,” Strassberger said.
Cheryl Little, the executive director and co-founder of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, a Miami-based nonprofit agency that provides legal assistance to immigrants, calls FHSAA’s policy a “misinterpretation of the law” and urges the organization to revise the rule.
Little, who previously has worked with the Haitian Refugee Center, a Miami-based organization that helps Haitian refugees with immigration matters, said students, especially those with green cards, are inherently protected from the rule.
“It sounds a little over the top to me,” Little said. “Clearly we have many, many students who are lawful permanent residents who have every right to work and go to school here. The (FHSAA) seems to be very confused.”
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Correspondent Derek Redd contributed to this report.