State Superintendent Randy Dorn caused a backlash after he questioned a Raisbeck Aviation High School student about his immigration status, asking “are you legal or illegal?” at a school visit Thursday.

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During a visit to Raisbeck Aviation High School on Thursday, Randy Dorn, the state’s top schools official, asked a few students their names, grade levels and where they were from. Students come from all over the region to go to Aviation, so Dorn was curious about the students’ home districts.

One student said he first went to school in Mexico. The two talked about the student’s transition to the Tukwila school, then Dorn said:

“Now I’ll ask you under my breath, are you legal or illegal?”

As a KOMO News photographer recorded the conversation, the student replied “I’m legal, I’m half American.”

The student, Julian Medina-Schroeder, said afterward that he thought the question was inappropriate. His concerns were later echoed by education advocates.

“It’s kind of worrying that it came from a person that has that position,” Medina-Schroeder told KOMO.

Dorn, who is ending his second term in office this year, said Friday he’s never asked that same question before, and he quickly realized he shouldn’t have said it the way he did.

“As soon as I said it, I thought in my head ‘that probably wasn’t right,’” he said Friday. “A better question would have been ‘How did you get to this school?’ ”

Education advocates said Dorn should never ask about a student’s immigration status. Many families fear deportation and students who are undocumented are told by their parents never to reveal their status to those outside of the family, said Ricardo Sanchez, a member of the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

“I don’t think he (Dorn) understands just how sensitive of a subject this is,” said Sanchez, who also founded the Latino/a Educational Achievement Project (LEAP). “This is something they (the students) don’t want to speak about, and it will make a kid very, very nervous. It’s not an appropriate question.”

Dorn said students who are undocumented are able to receive a free K-12 public education, but face numerous barriers when they try to go on to college. In the recording, Dorn says he always wonders about the students because he has “kids that come in from Brewster, and Wapato and Toppenish” whose parents are migrants “so they kept going across the border.”

“I was wondering if he (the Aviation student) was in that category,” he said Friday.

Sharonne Navas, co-founder and executive director of the Equity in Education Coalition, said Dorn’s question perpetuates the assumption that all Latino students are foreign. She added that he seemed to laugh during the exchange.

“To ask in that way, in a chuckling way, it just goes to show that I don’t know that Superintendent Dorn understands the barriers undocumented students have,” Navas said. “And if he does understand, then he finds it kind of funny.”

She, and others, also questioned Dorn’s use of the words “legal” and “illegal.” It creates the impression that those without documentation are second-class citizens, LEAP director Angela Ballasiotes said.

“Calling someone ‘illegal’ really criminalizes the existence of people who are here without documentation,” she said. “The terms alone are inappropriate.”

Dorn said he normally doesn’t use those terms when talking about immigration or undocumented students.

Sanchez said he doesn’t think Dorn had any malicious intent when he asked the question, and that he thought he was trying to help the student. He cited Dorn’s work in trying to secure financial aid for Washington students who are undocumented.

“He has been a very strong supporter of the kids and of our efforts to help them get access to higher education,” he said. “He’s been strongly in their corner and a real leader in that regard. But I think he understands how sensitive of a subject this is, and for that, we can fault him.”

Dorn said he contacted Aviation High and gave them his cellphone number, in case Medina-Schroeder wants to contact him.

“I’ve made an effort to make contact with him,” Dorn said. “If he says I offended him or made him uncomfortable, I’m going to say ‘you’re right. I’m sorry I offended you.’ ”