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Equity & Diversity

Ala. Immigration Law Casts Pall Over Community’s Schools

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 01, 2012 11 min read
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In the days before Alabama’s tough immigration law took full effect last year, Maritelma Ixmatlahua, a 36-year-old wife and mother from Veracruz, Mexico, had some wrenching decisions to make.

Should her family of four pack up their small trailer home and leave Foley, this rural community just north of the resort town of Gulf Shores? Only her daughter Ruby has legal status. Born in the 8,000-resident town seven years earlier, Ruby is a U.S. citizen.

On the other hand, if the family stayed, whom could she and her husband designate to become legal guardians of Ruby and her 12-year-old brother, Juan Pablo, in the event that both parents were detained by immigration authorities?

And finally, la ley, as the immigrant community in Alabama refers to the immigration law, was forcing her and her husband to tell Juan Pablo, a 6th grader, that he is undocumented. How would they explain it?

Juan Pablo wanted to know if, like many of his friends at school, the family would move to Mexico, a country he’d only known the first three years of his life. Moved by the boy’s persuasion, the family decided to stay. And, on Sept. 29, 2011, the day after a federal district judge allowed most of the law to take effect, Ixmatlahua and her husband sent their two children to school.

“We told them, ‘You will go to school and fulfill your dreams,’ ” Ixmatlahua recalls telling her children. “You will show them with your good grades that we are better than they think we are.”

Approved nearly a year ago by state lawmakers and Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, the law that brought on Ixmatlahua’s emotional distress is considered the nation’s toughest immigration law. It is seen as effectively pushing undocumented immigrants from the state by curtailing many of their rights. And the state’s public schools and educators are squarely in the middle of the human fallout it has brought on.

Among other provisions, the law makes it a criminal offense for undocumented immigrants to register a vehicle or rent an apartment, and it cracks down on anyone who employs or houses undocumented immigrants.

It also includes a provision requiring school districts to ask new students to show proof of citizenship or lawful immigration status when they enroll; the districts are then to report that information to the state education department. (That mandate was put on hold by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta.)

The Alabama law is among a wave of anti-illegal-immigration laws to have emerged in states such as Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Utah—all places that, like Alabama, have seen a surge in their immigrant populations over the past few decades. In Alabama, the law’s supporters say they acted, in part, to push the federal government to enact its own reforms of immigration law.

The longevity of those state laws is uncertain because of legal challenges by the Obama administration. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently weighing the Arizona law—which does not share the same school-related provisions as Alabama’s law—and is expected to announce a decision later this month.

Twelve-year-old Juan Pablo Pacheco, his mother Maritelma Ixmatlahua, father Juan Pacheco, and sister Ruby Pacheco, 7, pose in their neighborhood in Foley, Ala. They are among the many Latino families in their rural community that are feeling the fallout from a new state law targeting illegal immigrants.

Whatever the outcome of the legal wrangling, such statutes have had a chilling effect, opponents say, in many immigrant-rich communities—even in Foley, where many of the families that fled last fall have begun to return.

Educators at Foley Elementary School see the impacts play out every day, in the questions that children ask their teachers—such as “Do you have your papers?"—and in troubling trends they’ve noticed in behavior and academic achievement in the past six months or so.

For example, educators here expect the rate at which Hispanic students are held back a grade to be as much as four times what it was last year. Though scores on state achievement tests for the 2011-12 school year weren’t available yet, Foley’s staff members were bracing for a drop in academic growth for their Hispanic and English-learner students, who have been outperforming their non-Hispanic white and African-American peers for the past three years.

“A child who is in fear cannot learn, and that is what we are dealing with,” says William Lawrence, the longtime principal of Foley Elementary, where 20 percent of the 1,200 students are Latino, most of them American-born.

“For the most part, these are American-citizen children whose constitutional rights are under attack by this law,” Lawrence says. “And all children, regardless of their legal status, have the right to come to school free of fear.”

The landmark 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe ruled that children are entitled to receive a free public K-12 education in the United States regardless of their immigration status.

Defending the Policy

But advocates for Alabama’s law say that none of its provisions are tantamount to keeping immigrant children or the children of immigrants out of public schools.

Seven-year-old Ruby Pacheco plays outside her trailer home in Foley, Ala. Ruby is a 2nd grader at Foley Elementary School, where she tested out of the English-as-a-second-language program. Though she was born in the United States, the rest of her family is undocumented.

“We don’t have these laws to be mean to people,” says Ira Mehlman, the spokesman for the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, which supports the Alabama law and other similar state laws. “The issue is: How does this affect the lives of those in Alabama or anywhere else? If your kid is in a classroom where half the kids don’t speak English and you are seeing resources diverted from your children to teach these children English, it’s not fair.”

A poll conducted in February and published in March showed that a majority of Alabama residents support the current law, but even among supporters, many believe it needs revising. Roughly 35 percent of state residents oppose the law, according to the poll, conducted by Anzalone Liszt Research, a public opinion and political consulting firm.

Most young Latinos in American public schools are born in the United States. Fewer than 10 percent of them were born in a foreign country, although Alabama has the highest concentration of foreign-born Latinos of any state at 17 percent, according to an EPE Research Center analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Still, the polarizing debates and rhetoric around immigration in Alabama and elsewhere overshadow the lives of many Latino students regardless of their legal status.

Carmen Gonzalez, a 28-year-old mother of two schoolchildren in Foley who was born in Texas and raised in southern Alabama, describes it this way: “It doesn’t matter that my children and I are citizens. People look at us now, see our brown skin and hear us speak Spanish, and treat us like we don’t belong here.”

“My experience is that students are acutely aware of these anti-immigrant sentiments and the high-profile activities in places like Arizona and Georgia make this feel pervasive,” says Patricia Gándara, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA. “A lot of the kids are born here or otherwise legally here, but if one family member’s status is in doubt, the whole family is affected.”

Worry about family members’ status or even wondering what opportunities will be open to them as adults not only makes focusing on school a challenge, but can lead to poor performance, loss of motivation, and ultimately dropping out, Ms. Gándara says.

The ‘Friendly School’

For more than a decade, Foley Elementary School has been as central to the tight-knit immigrant community here as St. Margaret’s, the local Catholic church, where Mass is celebrated in Spanish every Sunday. The school—known as escuela amistosa, or the “friendly school"—began serving immigrants about 15 years ago in a summer program for the children of migrant workers who came to work the sweet-potato and watermelon harvest.

Lucy Cunningham, right, an ESL paraeducator at Foley Elementary, helps kindergartner Lizabeth Guerra try on pants to replace the oversized pair she wore to school while volunteer Dora Gutierrez looks on. Foley's staff collects food and clothing for needy families, teaches adult ESL classes, and helps families translate documents.

Lawrence was in his first year as Foley’s principal then and remembers that there were just four children enrolled year-round who were Latino and needed English-as-a-second-language services.

Within a few years, though, the population grew bigger and more permanent as construction jobs became plentiful in and around Gulf Shores, which had been badly damaged in 2004 by Hurricane Ivan. The rise in sod farming—a year-round enterprise—also drew immigrant families, who put down roots in the area. The thriving tourism industry in Gulf Shores provided jobs in restaurants, condominiums, and hotels.

Lawrence began assembling a staff that could serve those new students and their families; he eventually added three full-time ESL teachers, one part-time ESL teacher, and a bilingual paraeducator. Ida White, one of Lawrence’s former teachers in the summer migrant program was hired to be a bilingual parent liaison who works closely with the Spanish-speaking families who live in the southern half of the 28,000-student Baldwin County school system, where Foley is located.

Facing the Fallout

That staffing, along with other efforts that Lawrence and his team of educators took to make immigrant families feel welcome, cemented the school’s reputation as a place to turn for all kinds of support. Foley staff members offered adult ESL and literacy classes, collected food and clothing for families in need, and helped translate at doctor’s appointments or government offices.

As the state immigration legislation began brewing last year and many Hispanics were anticipating the worst, the Foley Elementary staff hosted a meeting with immigrant families at the school, advising them to “make a plan” before uprooting and leaving. But in the weeks leading up to the law’s enactment and in the days immediately afterward, Foley’s team realized many parents either thought the law barred their children from school or were fearful that if they did attend, school officials would have to report them to law enforcement.

Uneven Flow of Immigration

Of Latino youths younger than 18 residing in the United States, fewer than 10 percent were born in another country. The percentage of young Latinos who are immigrants varies from state to state, with a high of 17 percent in Alabama and a low of 1 percent in Montana. Southeastern states have relatively large concentrations of non-native young Latinos.


SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2012. Analysis of data from the American Community Survey (2008-2010), U.S. Census Bureau

Because of the law’s provision allowing law-enforcement officials to ask for documentation during routine traffic stops, many parents were too scared to drive anywhere.

More than two dozen families withdrew their children from Foley Elementary, and those children who did come to school were often in tears, Lawrence says.

Students’ biggest fear was that one or both of their parents would be pulled over by the police and detained while they were in school, the principal recalls.

“My kids were running home every day after school to make sure I was still there,” Lorena Gonzalez Estrada, an undocumented mother of three, says in Spanish. “They weren’t being normal, happy kids.”

Teachers found themselves consoling sobbing students, who missed their friends who had left. They also consoled one another, as they noticed that families had left.

Signs of academic trouble also became apparent, a direct result, educators say, of the fear and psychological stress brought on by the law.

Robin Wiggins, a veteran kindergarten teacher at Foley, says English-language learners are “always quiet at the beginning of the year.” But, in a normal year, most of them are freely expressing themselves in English by Christmas, she says.

“This year, that’s not been the case,” Wiggins says. “I think it’s because they did not know if we wanted to hear what they had to say.”

Older Youths’ Stresses

Patty Wagner, a bilingual ESL teacher at Foley Intermediate School, a separate campus which serves 5th and 6th graders, has seen disturbing behavior changes and signs of depression in some of her students that she attributes to the impact the law has had on them and their families.

“We have students who are huffing the freon in air conditioners,” she says. “And I know of a girl who has started cutting herself. And some students who had been hardworking before seem to have given up. It’s like they see no point in even trying anymore.”

The Rev. Paul Zoghby, the priest at St. Margaret of Scotland Church, where many Hispanic families attend Mass, says one family made the decision to pack up and leave for Mexico even though a 17-year-old daughter, who is a U.S. citizen, would have graduated from high school this month and had won a hefty college scholarship.

“The choices people have been forced to make are just tragic,” he says.

In the months since the law went into effect, people’s nerves have calmed some, and educators at Foley have worked hard to allay fears and be a source of reliable information, especially now that a new piece of legislation to amend the state law is making its way through the Alabama statehouse in Montgomery.

Principal Lawrence and Foley Elementary ESL teachers Patricia Armour and Linda Harris have also become outspoken activists against the law and the changes that are proposed in the new legislation.

“I’ve told everyone who will listen that this law is wrong and it hurts children,” Lawrence says. “I’m a lifelong Republican, but I can’t stand by and watch as politicians try to hurt good children and families.”


Armour says that for the first time in a three-decade teaching career, she was not proud to teach her students the Pledge of Allegiance. “It made me feel bad,” she says.

Juan Pablo, who seems to fully understand what’s at stake for his family despite his young age, admits that last semester was difficult for him, and that he let his grades slip. He was preoccupied with whether he’d have to move to Mexico, where he says, “the politicians don’t want to share the money and most people are very poor.”

And, he says, Mexico is too dangerous: “It’s not safe there because of the [drug] cartels.”

“I honor my parents for bringing us here,” he says, through tears. “I don’t know what I would be doing over there in Mexico.”

Still, the state law has altered Juan Pablo’s future ambitions, though he says he won’t give up on his dream to attend the University of Alabama and play for the powerhouse Crimson Tide football team.

“I wanted to join the Army or the Air Force, but now I am thinking about becoming a priest,” he says. “My mom said to me, ‘Why would you want to go over there [to fight in a war] if they are treating us like this?’”


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