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Concerns over Arizona's immigration law delays police program in Tucson-area schools

In this Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014 photo, math is taught to high school students during a class at the Karnes County Residential Center, a temporary home for immigrant women and children detained at the border, in Karnes City, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

In this Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014 photo, math is taught to high school students during a class at the Karnes County Residential Center, a temporary home for immigrant women and children detained at the border, in Karnes City, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Tucson city leaders have delayed a program putting police officers in high schools and middle schools over concerns that officers will ask students about their immigration status as required by Arizona's SB1070, the state's landmark immigration enforcement law.

A state grant would place nine officers at seven high schools and two middle schools, about five years after the Tucson Police Department, in a budget crunch, had to eliminate the program.

But concerns that police would ask for a student's immigration status led to a debate this week when City Council members were set to sign off on the contracts with Tucson Unified School District and Amphitheater Public Schools. The School Resource Officers would patrol the school while providing 180 hours of law-related education. Police say the officers provide guidance to students and keep them out of trouble.

But even the possibility that a school resource officer could question the status of a minor is too much for some council members.

"Parents and students not having the complete confidence of not being asked their immigration status is something that could be very nerve-wracking and chilling, actually," Councilwoman Regina Romero said.

Romero asked that a clause be put in the contract prohibiting Tucson police from asking students about their status.

But that would force officers to break the law, Tucson police Chief Roberto Villaseñor said.

"They need to do what the law says," Villaseñor said. "This type of direction requires me to break the law. And I will not do it. I'm sorry. "

Villaseñor has been a vocal opponent of SB1070, the law that requires police to question, while enforcing other laws, the immigration status of people suspected of being in the country illegally.

But he has also been vocal about his duty to abide by the law, facing criticism in Tucson from immigrant advocates and by city counselors who believe the law is unconstitutional.

The most contentious part of the law, passed in 2010, has been upheld by the nation's top court, but other parts, such a requirement that immigrants carry registration, have been struck down.

In Tucson, a city that calls itself immigrant-friendly, leaders have gone as far as suggesting that Tucson police break the law by not enforcing it, saying the city is ready to take on any lawsuits that come of it.

"So yes, we're not supposed to explicitly provide the direction. But if we are doing it to protect the constitutional rights of people, let us be sued for that, and let our defense be we believe SB 1070 violates people's constitutional rights, or that enforcement of it could," Councilwoman Karin Uhlich said.

At their meeting Tuesday, the council settled on revising wording in the contract stating school resource officers cannot ask about a student's immigration status unless it is directly relevant to an investigation and only with the permission of a parent, guardian or attorney.

The contracts will now go back to the two school districts, which must approve them at public meetings.

"At that point we're getting late in the school year. We're already late into the school year, and we would like to get the officers in there and establish those relationships," Villaseñor said.

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