The Disappearing Children of Arizona

Public schools anticipate steep drops in enrollment that may be tied to swelling fears about the new anti-immigrant law.

By Michelle Chen Jun 01, 2010

Last month, when a classic Washington photo-op—the First Lady surrounded by school children—turned into a tense encounter between the White House matriarch and the daughter of an undocumented immigrant, the media’s lens focused for an instant on the human face of the immigration crisis. But in Arizona, even the most sympathetic characters in the drama surrounding SB 1070—kids whose parents risk deportation every day—may be better off hiding from public view. Local public schools anticipate steep drops in enrollment that may be tied to swelling fears about the new anti-immigrant law. According to the Arizona Republic:

Some school officials say enough parents and students have told them they plan to leave the state this summer to indicate Hispanic enrollment could drop at some schools. But there’s no way to know exactly how many illegal immigrants will depart because schools do not inquire about a student’s or a family’s legal status. Many Latino-heavy school districts say the recession already has pushed many of their families out of state to look for work. The passage of Senate Bill 1070, which widens enforcement of immigration law, has tipped the balance for some parents who tried to stick it out.

The disappearance of these students may have far-reaching ripple effects, from a drop in school funding allocations to a loss of community bonds for both struggling immigrant families and their neighbors. In fiscal terms, despite restrictionists’ false claims that immigrants overdrain public services, officials predict that if children of undocumented immigrants begin pulling out of schools, the infrastructure and per-capita funds of neighborhood schools could suffer devastating cuts. The 170,000 children of immigrants in Arizona’s school system, according to the Republic, account for “about $749 million, or 16 percent, of the state’s education budget.” Officials also point out that the loss of one student doesn’t directly translate into "savings" for the district, since overhead costs like building maintenance and teacher salaries don’t fluctuate on a one-to-one ratio with enrollment. The loss of students creates social deficits, too. In the Balsz Elementary District in east Phoenix, where 70 families are reported to have vanished from school rolls over the past month, a local program that coordinated group walks to school has disintegrated, because “parents were too fearful to walk the streets, parents and school officials say. Some were busy packing for a move.” According to the Pew Hispanic Center, about half of undocumented immigrant adults nationwide live with their children, many of whom are citizens. In Arizona, it’s unclear where these youth will go in the hailstorm of anti-immigrant anxiety, especially now, as other states move to tighten policies against the undocumented and more immigrant teens approach graduation day with no legal avenue for pursuing higher education or even a legitimate job. One mother and school volunteer, 27 year-old Claudia Suriano, told the Republic that her family would leave the state because they no longer felt safe living in Phoenix without papers, and the stress was "too great a weight" for her husband. As for her kids:

"They’re just innocent children," she said. "The older one—he’s 9—says, ‘Mommy, I have my friends here and my school.’ They don’t understand what in the world is going on."

They’re not the only ones. Michelle Obama’s chance encounter offered a brief glimpse into a hidden humanitarian crisis. The little girl whose mother doesn’t have papers was a lone, anonymous voice speaking for countless families now retreating into silence. Image: Migration Information Source