Caught in the Crossfire
Schools in Oklahoma grapple with new laws targeting illegal immigration
By Tim Walker
The staff at Kendall-Whittier Elementary had an uneasy feeling that the 2007—08 school year would be anything but routine.
Signs everywhere indicated that this school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, would see drastic numbers of student absences as the school year got under way. Summer school enrollment had dipped. Fewer parents turned out for the school's annual "Preview Night." Rumors abounded that many families were too afraid to set foot on school ground.
"Something obviously wasn't right," teacher Gracye McCoy recalls. "We were hearing things. You could feel the panic. And we knew the cause was 1804."
That's House Bill 1804, or the Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act of 2007, an iron-fisted, anti-illegal immigration statute passed by the state legislature last April. The law, which went into effect in November, requires all state and local agencies to verify the citizenship status of job applicants and limits eligibility for state driver's licenses and ID cards to citizens, nationals, and legal immigrants. It also repeals an earlier law that permits undocumented immigrants to attend state colleges at in-state tuition levels. The law's most controversial provisions, however, make it a felony to "conceal, harbor, or shelter" undocumented residents.
The Tulsa City Council jumped into the fray with a resolution requiring Tulsa police officers to check the immigration status of anyone under arrest for felonies and misdemeanors.
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The new law shocked Tulsa's Hispanic population, which includes a large and growing number of undocumented immigrants. The resulting climate of fear recalled the anxiety and suspicion created in California more than a decade earlier with the passage of Proposition 187, the referendum denying public benefits to undocumented immigrants.
Illegal immigration draws impassioned and often incendiary rhetoric from people on opposing sides. In a moderate-size city like Tulsa, such an atmosphere can quickly erode trusted and carefully cultivated relationships among members of the community, local businesses, and institutions such as public schools.
"Parents were hearing rumors that police or INS agents would be trolling our school grounds, just waiting to pick parents up and deport them as they brought their children to school," Kendall-Whittier teacher Monica Carrizalez remembers.
Oklahoma is not the only state struggling with this complex and divisive issue. Lawmakers in many states have long been frustrated and impatient about the gridlock in Washington, D.C., over immigration reform. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of July 2007, no fewer than 1,404 pieces of legislation related to immigration had been introduced nationwide—twice the number reported in 2006. New laws have created a potpourri of new rules and regulations. Although some laws address education for undocumented families, Plyler v. Doe, the 1982 Supreme Court decision guaranteeing the right of children of undocumented immigrants to a free, public education, remains settled law.
Still, public schools don't operate in a vacuum. They often feel the reverberations from government's attempts to "solve" an intricate and thorny social issue. Consequently, as more immigration reform laws are passed, district officials and educators in communities with large Hispanic populations face a new set of challenges that may fundamentally alter how they interact with students' families.
"Generally [schools] try their very best to be seen as a safe place where parents can feel comfortable [sending] their children every day," says Cullen Casey of the National School Boards Association.
The effects of overzealous immigration enforcement on schools, adds Casey—the disruptions in attendance, funding, and student learning—are "chilling."
Recent Census Report figures reveal the dramatic transformation of Oklahoma's population over the past seven years.
The number of Hispanic youths has increased by more than 32 percent since 2000, and by 2020, at least one in four children in Oklahoma will be Hispanic. In Tulsa, the Hispanic population stands at approximately 50,000—about 7 percent of the overall population.
"I was used to driving around in my car and never seeing anyone who looked like me," recalls Nilda Reyes, director of Equity and Diversity for Tulsa Public Schools. "In just a matter of a few years, I saw everything change."
So did conservative Oklahoma lawmaker Randy Terrill. But he saw the changing population as a root cause of economic problems and lawlessness. Believing it was up to the states to fill the void created by federal inaction on immigration reform, Terrill introduced the Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act—House Bill 1804—last January. The proposal moved swiftly through the legislature, and Gov. Brad Henry signed it into law in May, with an effective date of November 1, 2007.
Some longtime Oklahomans, however, insist that stoking fears over economic instability, border security, and crime often masks an uglier truth.
"People around here," says teacher Harriet Leake, "just don't want anybody brown or Catholic living anywhere near them. It's that simple." A self-described "ultra-conservative," Leake says House Bill 1804 is "mean-spirited and unconscionable."
"Make no mistake, I'm to the right of Attila the Hun," she says unapologetically. "But I'm also a Good Samaritan, and I don't understand why we can't share the bounty in this state." Leake has strong personal ties to several undocumented families and says some of her best students have come from those homes.
Throughout the summer and early fall, Leake looked to November 1 with trepidation. But she and her colleagues wouldn't have to wait that long to see the law's effect.
One of the largest elementary schools in Oklahoma, Kendall-Whittier's student population is roughly 55 percent Hispanic, 18 percent Caucasian, 12 percent Black, and 12 percent American Indian. Staff members speak proudly of the bonds they have cultivated with Hispanic students' parents. Tapping into these lines of communication, the staff was aware of the growing, widespread panic about House Bill 1804 and the probability that, come the first day of school, no-shows were inevitable.
Despite repeated assurances from local authorities that there were no such plans, rumors were rampant that school raids were imminent. Some parents called the school to say they were withdrawing their children and moving to Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, or California, or even heading back to Mexico.
Worried about the obvious strain the law had put on families in the neighborhood, Kendall-Whittier Principal Judy Feary and her staff were also deeply concerned about the fallout on their school.
"I was scared," Feary recalls. "If students didn't show up, I would lose teachers, and the students would fall behind." On top of that, Kendall-Whittier stood to lose funding for tutoring programs, and even the free lunch program was at risk.
Feary's concerns were realized on August 7, when almost 200 out of 1,000 students failed to show up on the first day of school.
Immediately, Feary and her staff jumped into action. Volunteering after school, teachers began telephoning parents one-by-one, while counselors and assistant principals knocked on the doors of absent students' homes to dispel rumors and calm nerves.
"We let the parents first tell us what was on their minds, what their fears were" teacher Monica Carrizalez explained. "They know us and trust us."
The message to parents was simple: You and your children are safe on school grounds. No one is going to arrest you and separate you from your children. By the end of the week, students began trickling back in and by late August, attendance neared 100 percent.
The efforts of Kendall-Whittier's staff, which were featured on the local news, seemed to reassure some parents; when the city's schools opened two weeks later, most of them reported virtually no absences. But some Tulsa residents sent Feary hate mail slamming her efforts to keep students enrolled. Feary concedes that some of her fellow Tulsans are unreachable, but she believes others might look on the issue differently if they could see what educators see.
"We are on the ground," Feary says. "We see the faces, the real people, not politics. We're lucky to have that perspective."
Focus on the child, not the politics, is advice echoed by Steve Joel, superintendent of Grand Island public schools in Nebraska.
Two weeks before Christmas 2006, immigration authorities raided the Swift meatpacking plant in his rural town of 45,000, carting away hundreds of employees. Swift plants in six states were under a long-reaching federal investigation for employing undocumented workers.
After receiving a tip-off that the raid was imminent, Joel immediately began coordinating plans to ensure the safety of the schools' students whose parents might be swept up in the action. He sent an urgent e-mail to school staff that an incident was under way that could profoundly affect students. Of the district's 7,000 children, more than 1,000 had parents employed at Swift.
The staff at Walnut Middle School assembled the student body in the gymnasium to deliver four important messages: 1) students' immigration status is of no interest to the school; 2) the only concern is the safety of the students; 3) notify a staff member if no one is at home; 4) if no one is home, the school will provide you with food and shelter.
Teachers and social workers volunteered to bring the students into their homes.
"No matter what," recalls counselor Mary Ann Richards. "We weren't going to let these kids go home alone. Of course, there are certain liability issues involved, but the teachers didn't care." As it turned out, students' relatives and other Hispanic families assisted by local churches provided the necessary care for any child who needed it.
The district's quick reaction helped avert a crisis, and officials succeeded in reassuring parents that schools were not a target.
Similar federal raids were conducted in Iowa, Minnesota, and Massachusetts, each one forcing school districts to make contingency plans on the fly. Actions like raids "present tremendous challenges to districts," explains Cullen Casey. "Children can be left without parents and may be left at school with no place to go."
By October 2007, educators at Kendall-Whittier hoped the pains they'd taken to alleviate the fears of undocumented families in August would keep their kids in school through the year.
But by the fall, some parents again began pulling their children out of school. Staff at Kendall-Whittier would look out the window and see parents pull up in trucks to pick up their sons or daughters on the way out of town. Longtime teachers would say goodbye to students who grew up in the neighborhood and were very much products of the Tulsa public school system.
"We were able to persuade most of them to return in August," says Carrizalez. "Now we know many are not coming back."
When House Bill 1804 finally went into effect in November, Judy Feary had already lost one teacher and expected to lose two more because of her school's declining enrollment. She also notes that the stress on students and their families led to a significant increase in referrals for counseling services. If enrollment continues to decline, the school could lose additional funding.
Despite the challenges and uncertainty, the staff at Kendall-Whittier hasn't lost sight of the school's mission.
"We have all types of students here and we treat all of them and their families the same," says Gracye McCoy. "We don't care what their immigration status is. We're about education. Any child that walks through that door is welcome."
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Schools Can't Turn Away Undocumented Students
The recent frenzy of anti-immigrant xenophobia has produced a host of local ordinances aimed at ridding communities of "undocumented aliens" and their children who attend public schools. Can they do that?
The jury is still out on the legality of local ordinances that punish businesses that hire undocumented workers and landlords who rent to them. A federal judge in Pennsylvania last summer struck down such a law. Generally, only the federal government has the power to regulate immigration.
But what about the children of undocumented workers: Can they be banned from public schools? On this issue, the law is crystal clear: In the 1982 landmark decision Plyler v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court decreed that state and local school districts cannot deny admission to undocumented immigrant children. To do so, the Court declared, would violate the constitutional right to Equal Protection and deny these children the "basic tools" necessary to make their way in life.
Because the Plyler decision is based on the federal Constitution, it is now the "law of the land." This means that neither Congress nor any state legislature nor any school board has the power to overrule the case and deny a free, public education to undocumented immigrant children. In 1994, for example, voters in California passed Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that would have prohibited "illegal aliens" from attending the state's public schools. A federal court immediately declared the law unconstitutional under Plyler.
But can teachers be conscripted into the ranks of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) police and forced to verify the documented status of students who seek to enroll in school? The answer is no. That was one of the rulings of the California case involving Proposition 187.
More recently, a Hispanic advocacy group successfully challenged a suburban Chicago school district's refusal to register an undocumented student and then ran a series of public service announcements in Chicago reminding parents that school officials cannot ask students about their immigration status.
Undocumented students also have rights under federal laws, including NCLB, that prohibit schools from discriminating on the basis of national origin and that require schools to take affirmative steps to help English Language Learners (ELLs) overcome language barriers.
In response to a new business item adopted at the 2007 Representative Assembly, the NEA Office of General Counsel prepared a comprehensive memorandum titled "Immigration Status and the Right to a Free Public Education." The memorandum offers practical advice for NEA members who may confront some of the special problems of undocumented students and can be downloaded as a PDF here.
Michael D. Simpson