PHOENIX — A week before he faces contested primary election to keep his job, State School Superintendent John Huppenthal called a press conference Wednesday to warn voters about an immigration threat he acknowledged may not exist.
The state's top education official warned Arizona schools could be inundated with tens of thousands of immigrant children at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars if President Obama enacts some kind of amnesty.
But in response to questions, Huppenthal confirmed federal law already requires Arizona — and all states — to educate children regardless of their immigration status. And that, he said, means the children he fears might be granted amnesty are likely already here and in Arizona schools.
But he added, there is no way to know "all of the implications'' of what the president might order.
"In the past there have been complex effects of, depending on how it's worded, how it's structured, how it's administered,'' Huppenthal said. "All of these things could inadvertently open up the flood and hit us, hit us hard.''
Huppenthal said he has been worried about the problem now for some months in the wake of thousands of unaccompanied minors crossing into the United States through Texas, about 200 of whom were released to sponsors in Arizona.
He said the timing of his press conference, less than a week before he faces former Peoria school board member Diane Douglas in the GOP primary, is because of the "imminent'' threat of an Obama declaration, one he wants to impact.
But state Sen. Steve Gallardo, a Phoenix Democrat, said he sees a far different motive.
"This is what you do in Arizona politics,'' he said. "When you're losing in the polls and it looks like your days as an elected official are numbered, that's when you start moving towards attacking undocumented kids,'' Gallardo said.
Huppenthal, who had the press conference in his state office, insisted there was nothing political about it.
The winner of the Republican nomination will face either David Garcia or Sharon Thomas, both Democrats, in the general election.
Huppenthal said just those approximately 200 children already released to sponsors will have a $1 million effect on the state budget. But he said that is only the tip of the problem, producing a chart with a $50.8 million price tag if 10,000 children end up in Arizona schools through "illegal immigration under amnesty,'' with costs potentially going as high as $200 million, depending on how many children show up.
He also produced a copy of a letter to federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan warning of a "potential fiscal crisis ... due to a massive influx of amnesty-seeking illegal immigrant school-aged children."
However, Huppenthal acknowledged he has no basis for his estimates of new students, and appeared taken aback by a question about his racial attitudes, as exemplified by some of his once-anonymous blog posts, like one where he wrote, "This is America, speak English.''
"I grew up on the south side of Tucson,'' he said, noting the elementary school he went to was in the "highest minority, highest poverty, lowest income area of Tucson.''
"My social circle was Marcelino Lucero, Manny Gonzales, Jimmy Ortega, Louie Rodriguez,'' Huppenthal continued. "Those were my buddies for eight straight years.''