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Scared at school

(Photo by Ryan Cook/RJCook Photography)

(Photo by Ryan Cook/RJCook Photography)

Living as illegal immigrants in Phoenix, Gerardo and Lupita have spent the past 11 years suppressing a certain amount of fear that they would be discovered and deported; however, until Arizona’s new immigration law was signed in April, they didn’t worry much about sending their two children to school.

But they’re scared now – of being singled out and arrested for sending their children to public school. So are their children, Daniela, 13, and Diego, 7.

Daniela is an undocumented high school student; Diego is the only official U.S. citizen in the family. Their mother, Lupita, said she’s scared for both of them.

“School is really, really important,” Lupita said. “I clean houses. I clean toilets. I don’t want that for my daughter, and I know that school is her best chance. So I try to tell her, ‘Don’t be scared. Everything is going to be fine.’ But inside, I’m really scared.”

Daniela’s high school – like many public schools in Arizona – has a police officer working full-time on campus. These school resource officers (SROs) work under contract with school districts to keep schools safe and to react to emergencies when necessary.

Part of an SRO’s mission is to become a role model to the students and foster a sense of trust between children and police. But that role may change when the school year begins this fall, after the immigration law takes effect.

Hispanic parents across the state are worried that police stationed at schools will start treating students like suspected law-breakers because the language of S1070 unequivocally requires all police to investigate suspected illegal immigrants and charge them under state trespassing laws if they can’t prove they are in the country legally.

The Arizona School Boards Association and school resource officers are doing their best to downplay the possibility of such a scenario. The school boards group says enforcement that would hinder an undocumented student’s right to education – such as his or her removal from school – would run afoul of established constitutional law.

Meanwhile, the bill’s authors, Sen. Russell Pearce and attorneys with the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), said police officers in Arizona are required to investigate potential state immigration crimes, no matter what beat an officer is working.

“To assume that schools are areas protected from enforcing the law is simply not correct,” said Pearce, a Mesa Republican who worked with FAIR to draft S1070. “If you have a legitimate suspicion that a person is breaking the law, you have to investigate it.”

Advocates for the Hispanic community said thousands of families don’t know what to expect when the school year begins this fall, and said some parents are considering removing their children from school just to be safe. Even a few arrests on school grounds could trigger widespread panic, they said.

“People are getting really scared,” said Adam Lopez Falk, a board member of the Alhambra Elementary School District in Phoenix. “I’ve had parents come to my house and ask, ‘Is it safe to bring my kids to school? Is it safe to have my kids in school at all? Are the police going to come and round them up?’… A lot of them are ready to leave or move out of Arizona.”

Don Kerwin, vice president of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, said his research has found that both legal and illegal immigrant populations tend to “go underground” when they perceive law enforcement is targeting them.

“The reaction of immigrants has been to stay at home, go underground, not take their kids to school or to go to church – anything to not bring themselves to the attention of the authorities,” Kerwin said. “That’s been consistent.”

Soon, families like Gerardo and Lupita’s will have to make a gut-wrenching choice: Risk the future of their children by avoiding school, or jeopardize the whole family’s quest for the American Dream.

Right now, they’re planning to send Daniela and Diego to school, even though both situations pose problems. Daniela could end up being investigated and arrested if a police officer finds out she’s here illegally. And even though Diego is a natural-born citizen, Gerardo and Lupita open themselves up to similar contact with police just by dropping him off or picking him up at school.

Arizona’s new law has underscored the fact that Daniela is a ninth-grade criminal. It doesn’t matter that she gets good grades and won a school spelling bee when she was 8. It also doesn’t matter that she made none of the choices that got her into this situation.

Gerardo recalled carrying his three-year-old daughter on his back as the family walked across the border during an eight-hour journey through the desert near Nogales in 1999.

“I don’t remember any of it,” Daniela says of her family’s illegal crossing.

CONFLICTING DUTIES

On June 22, inside the gymnasium at Madison Park Elementary School, Lady Ga-Ga’s latest hit blared over the speakers and 63 elementary students practiced hip-hop dance steps alongside several Phoenix police officers who awkwardly joined in.

As the students filed out of the gymnasium at the end of the day, many gave SRO Reneé Ross a hug before leaving.

“We have a lot of fun here,” Ross said. “Most of what we do is help teach teamwork, community service, physical fitness and skill building.”

Sgt. Jeff Young, who oversees all of the school resource officers in Phoenix, said they are not at school to investigate students as criminals. Their role is to develop positive community relationships, so crime can be prevented instead of investigated, he said.

“The one thing we definitely do not want to have is the kids afraid of us,” Young said. “Our SROs consider the students and staff as family.”

That bond-building reputation will be difficult to keep after July 29, however, because school resource officers stationed at middle- and high-school campuses across the state may be compelled to act on any information that a student is here illegally. State and local government entities that don’t enforce the law to the fullest extent will be vulnerable to lawsuits, which can be filed by any Arizona resident.

Garrett Roe, an attorney with FAIR, said school officials are fooling themselves if they think school resource officers have some sort of special designation under the law. That’s simply not the case, he said.

“I think that interpretation violates federal immigration law and restricts the ability to carry it out,” he said.

School officials have asked the state police training board and local police agencies to clarify the roles of police officers at schools. Some school board members are pushing for guidelines that maintain the status quo and protect students from heightened scrutiny.

Meanwhile, the Arizona Peace Officers Standards and Training board, which was tasked with establishing S1070 training guidelines for police agencies across the state, has no plans to clarify the roles of school resource officers. POST Director Lyle Mann said each contract between a school district and a local police agency is different, and it would be impossible at this time to address every question and concern of school officials.

The new state law creates several gray areas in which school police may have to carry out the new law in settings that traditionally had afforded protection to students from immigration enforcement.

The most common incident resource officers respond to on campuses that could be dealt with as a crime is fistfights. In that circumstance, the students involved in a fight have broken school rules, and the school resource officer would get involved to stop the fight, bring the students to the principal’s office, help report the incident and counsel the students. The officer’s role could end there.

If a student has racked up recurring violations, school administrators or police officers may determine the incident was severe enough to warrant criminal charges. At that point, a school resource officer would shift from a security role into a law enforcement role.

Kent Scribner, superintendent of the Phoenix Unified School District, said the decision to approach an incident as a crime is made by both the officer and school administration, but ultimately the school resource officers are still employed by the local police department, not the school district.

Ruben Gallego, a Democrat running for the House in the District 16, said many families in Phoenix look at the SROs as “the good guys,” and it would be a mistake to require them to investigate students.

“We won’t be able to find out about where immigrant drop houses are, if people are afraid to talk to the SROs,” he said. “If you give the police the chance to arrest 10 gang members or one undocumented student, which is better?”

TIME RUNNING OUT

Arizona’s new immigration law is set to take effect just weeks before the school year

begins, and district officials across the state are scrambling for a way to avoid violating federal laws that require them to provide free public education to all students while also complying with a state law that requires on-campus police officers to investigate suspected illegal immigrants.

Since statehood, Arizona’s educators have played by a strict set of federal rules that requires them to educate all school-age children without regard to race, ethnicity or immigration status.

But Pearce has set out to change all that; if S1070 doesn’t scare illegal immigrants out of the school system, he said he’ll force them out next year by drafting legislation to deny free public education to students who cannot prove they are U.S. citizens.

“We’ll have less crime and spend less money on supporting law breakers,” Pearce said.

Pearce has spearheaded laws to eliminate specific public benefits for illegal immigrants, to criminalize hiring an undocumented worker, and to charge illegal immigrants under state trespassing statute. But his plans to go after undocumented public school students is an attack on the well-established definition of the 14th Amendment – a definition Pearce and his supporters said is flawed.

The constitutional requirement to provide equal protection under the law to citizens and non-citizens – as well as free public school for legal residents and illegal immigrants– was upheld in the landmark 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decisionPlyler v. Doe.

Lynne C. Adams, an attorney who provides counsel to the Arizona School Boards Association, said the most common interpretation of Plyler is that governments must avoid any action that would dissuade undocumented children from attending public school. Doing so, Adams said, could be seen as a constitutional violation.

Roe, the attorney with FAIR, said the Plyler case poses no problem for the application of the new law because even though district officials and school staff are barred from inquiring about the immigration although status of students, police on school grounds are under no such restrictions.

“The location of the police officer doesn’t have any bearing on the enforcement of laws,” Roe said.

No matter what school districts ultimately do, they’re likely to get sued. Enforcing the state law too vigorously could lead to a challenge in federal court. Adhering too strictly to the federal rules could lead to a challenge in state court.

Kerwin, with the Migration Policy Institute, said any interpretation of the new Arizona law that allows it to be enforced on school grounds would certainly set off a constitutional challenge.

“A requirement like this clearly flies in the face of the rationale of ~Plyler~,” he said. “This will create a second class of citizens in the school system.”

Randy Capps, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, said any law restricting children from attending school may create a long-lasting disparity among different groups in society and limit the opportunities for a whole generation of people living in the U.S.

Capps said the supporters of Arizona’s new law almost always cite the cost of education as a reason to tighten immigration enforcement, but that they rarely consider what would happen if thousands of students are removed from the educational system.

“It’s likely to drive an increase in juvenile crime,” he said. “You might even see an increase in gang activity. They’ll have idle time, and they’ll be resentful of school and law enforcement, and this would build further resentment against authority.”

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