One argument used to promote increasing United States border security, including by some Fort Smith residents, is the assertion people illegally entering the country are taking medical, food and education resources from citizens or legal migrants.
For the Fort Smith School District, migrant education and free lunches, both of which are federally funded programs are its primary concerns related to immigrant policy.
“The goal of the Federal Migrant Education Program is to ensure that all migrant students reach challenging academic standards and graduate with a high school diploma or GED that prepares them for responsible citizenship, further learning and productive employment,” Mary Bellah, Fort Smith supervisor of special programs, wrote in an email.
Bellah said 91 migrant students attend Fort Smith Public Schools ― 45 in elementary schools and 46 in junior high and senior high schools ― out of about 14,200 total students.
The district has "paraprofessionals" on staff to assist migrant students academically and give what Bellah called “healthy living support.” Funding for the program comes from Title I, and is used only for salaries and benefits of the support staff. When co-op funding is available, the district holds a two-week math camp for the migrant students who wish to participate, Bellah added.
Migrant students are also considered “categorically eligible” for free or reduced meals. This means they are automatically eligible for the program without having to submit an application.
According to the Food Research and Action Center, schools can use state information to certify these students. They can also coordinate with “homeless and migrant education liaisons to obtain documentation to certify children for free school meals.”
Fort Smith Schools Superintendent Doug Brubaker said in September he is a supporter of the program, which was introduced by President Harry Truman in 1946.
“This program has had a positive, powerful force on students’ health, well-being and academic performance,” Brubaker said. “For some kids, meals at school are critically important, because they might not have food security outside of school. I’m always mindful of that, and I’m grateful for the program.”
President Donald Trump claimed before the 2018 midterm elections that Democrats were inviting large caravans of “illegal aliens” to the country to “sign them up” for free health care, education and the right to vote. Politifact.com notes Trump's claim was false.
People granted asylum may be eligible for Medicaid and other government programs, while the Help America Vote Act says federal voting rights are extended to U.S. citizens who are 18 years or older and meet their state’s residency requirements. Some states and cities may allow non-citizens to vote in school and local elections.
Those who have entered the country illegally, however, are still eligible for emergency health care, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), free school lunches and public education. This is federal law.
Plyler v. Doe, a 1982 Supreme Court case, ruled that withholding state funding from schools to educate “children of illegal aliens” was unconstitutional.
The court ruled this violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment, which refers to the idea that the government cannot deny protection of its laws. The amendment was the basis of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Supreme Court case that led to racial desegregation of schools.
Despite ongoing immigration concerns, Fort Smith has not experienced an increase in migrant students.
“Currently, our migrant numbers are trending downward, and with the lower numbers, comes less funding to help to support them,” Bellah said.