PHOENIX - State senators voted Monday to force schools to ask parents whether their children are in this country legally.

Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said Arizona taxpayers are entitled to know how many children are being educated who have no legal right to be here. He said asking for documentation when a child is enrolled is no different from asking for proof of vaccinations or that a youngster actually lives in the school district.

Nothing in SB 1097, given preliminary approval would prevent a student from being enrolled if a parent could not or would not provide proof of U.S. citizenship or legal residency. Pearce concluded he couldn't keep the children out based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision obligating states to provide public education for all regardless of legal status.

But Pearce did not dispute a contention by foes that simply asking about legal status might keep some parents from enrolling their children, even if the youngsters were born in this country. And he said that doesn't bother him one bit.

"The laws are intended to make people fearful," Pearce said.

"If you're in fear you're going to be deported, that's the reason we have laws. I'm not going to apologize we have laws against it (illegal immigration) and you're in fear of those laws."

Sen. Jorge Garcia, D-Tucson, proposed altering the legislation to require the form used to solicit the information include wording telling parents that providing the documentation is voluntary and their children can't be denied an education.

Garcia said all that does is spell out what is, in fact, the truth: No child can be turned away.

But Pearce said it undermined the main purpose of the legislation: He wants an accurate count of illegal immigrants in Arizona schools, and the costs.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimated several years ago that anywhere from 60,000 to 65,000 youngsters in Arizona schools are not legal residents, figures that translate to about $650 million a year in state aid and local taxes. Pearce said those numbers are low, suggesting the cost to taxpayers is at least $800 million a year, and perhaps as high a $1.5 billion.

The American Civil Liberties Union has vowed to sue if Pearce's bill becomes law, arguing the mere act of asking would effectively deny children their right to a public education.