In the tradition of other Dutch traders before him, Roland Van Strien set out for America to sell his wares. He got a proper visa, tested the market and opened a showroom for his product, hardwood floors. He rented a home in suburban Cobb County and sent his wife, Gabriella, to enroll their two sons in public school.
But classes began a month ago without Tristan, 12, and Pascal, 9, because county school officials say the parents aren't permanent residents. While officials debate how permanent is permanent, the boys sit home playing Monopoly and watching television, casualties of a diplomatic scuffle over hard-nosed residency requirements that are found in few parts of the country.
Immigration lawyers say they are surprised to find such barriers in public schools, especially in light of last year's Supreme Court ruling that children of illegal aliens must be allowed free public schooling to prevent a new, illiterate underclass. Tristan and Pascal would be doing homework now if their father had slipped across the border from El Salvador illegally, says Norma Cantu, education progams director for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
The Cobb County School Board barred the Van Strien children because their father holds a non-immigrant visa that allows him to apply for an indefinite stay. Officials contend that makes him a non-resident, even though he pays taxes that support the schools. His firm plans to open a factory that might employ 200 people if a projected sales boom pans out, he says.
"A person visiting this country temporarily is not afforded a free public education unless they show they are going to be here on a permanent basis," said Richard Still, attorney for the school board.
Some 500 children of foreign families living here are kept out of Cobb public schools on similar grounds, while children of Lockheed workers and military dependents at Dobbins Air Force Base are welcome, despite their often transient status. But they are Americans.
Little effort is made to check visas or passports in other school districts across the country. All that is usually required to prove residency is a rent receipt or a driver's license, said Ken Muir, spokesman for the Montgomery County School Board in Maryland. Many school districts allow non-residents to enroll their children if tuition is paid. Van Strien says he would be happy to pay a surcharge to send his children to Cobb schools, but the county has no such provision for outsiders. Private schools are either filled or too expensive, he said.
The incident has outraged many local business leaders, who say they fear the schools' hard line may tarnish Atlanta's push to become an international oasis in the South. This city is touted on Dutch TV, for instance, and KLM regularly shuttles tourists and tulips between Amsterdam and Atlanta. "Some are concerned about what other nations think about us, but we have to think about the local taxpayer who is footing the bill, whether we are spending their money wisely or prudently," said Still.
An application for a business visa that Cobb officials promise to accept as proof of the Van Striens' permanent residency--and a passport to school for their boys--is pending before the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Deputy regional director Louis Richard said the INS could rule on the request as soon as Monday. Meanwhile, Van Strien is philosophical. "You have bureaucrats all over the world," he shrugged.