“Show Me Your Papers” Legislation Affects Mexican American Students

“Until we get equality in education, we won’t have an equal society.”

Those are the words of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. A year after the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice of the United States was confirmed in 2009, Arizona lawmakers passed two highly controversial laws, both of which have undeniably affected Arizona’s Mexican American youth. The first, Senate Bill 1070 (SB 1070), included a provision declaring that law enforcement officials in Arizona may determine the legal status of a person upon any legal stop, detention or, arrest. This provision has been dubbed the “show me your papers” provision, and it is deeply contested by many citizens of the state — and beyond — for effectively legalizing racial profiling.

The citizens in Arizona who stand to be questioned most often are those of Mexican heritage. This year, Richard Orozco and Francesca Lopez of the University of Arizona published a quantitative study examining if and how SB 1070 has infiltrated various aspects of the education of Mexican American students in Arizona.

The Effects of SB 1070 on Students

Orozco and Lopez investigated several possible effects from SB 1070 and the education of Mexican American youth. Their study focused on how perceived discrimination with acculturative stress (the psychological impact of adapting to a new culture), and racial phenotype (an individual's observable traits, such as height, eye color, and blood type) influenced school grades as well as how SB 1070 influenced school attachment (students’ perception of the value of school as it relates to their lives). The study sought to deepen understanding of how immigration legislation affects students of Mexican heritage who are U.S. citizens and who are either bilingual (English-Spanish) or monolingual (English) speakers.

All of the participants in the one-time study were U.S.-born, Mexican American high school students from two schools in the southern part of the state. The results of the study established a definitive connection between SB 1070 and the participants’ learning.

Education that produces unequal outcomes among students can be described as a crisis. According to Richard Valencia, who is cited in the study, the “failure of K–12 schools to work equitably for Mexican American students has been persistent, pervasive, and disproportionate when compared to white students” (original emphasis). Orozco and Lopez found that “for Mexican American high school students in Arizona, SB 1070 is a circumstance that contributes to the crisis.” It has, they found, “further upset an already precarious schooling experience for Mexican American students.” According to this research, legislative stressors and perceived discrimination negatively affect educational success.

The study by Orozco and Lopez highlights lessons that are broadly applicable, namely: The spirit of inclusion in individual schools as well as in state and national policy can help to prevent widespread educational crisis.

Mexican American Studies Threatened in Tucson

One way in which some Arizona schools were attempting to establish a sense of inclusion for students was through Mexican American studies courses. Research has long shown that the rise of multicultural studies during the late 20th century has proven to enhance student engagement and achievement.

Unfortunately, 2010 was not a great year for Mexican American studies in Arizona. During an assembly at Tucson High Magnet School, Dolores Huerta, a labor and civil rights activist and an early leader of the United Farm Workers, announced to students that “Republicans hate Latinos.” Tom Horne, the Superintendent of Education at the time, sent an aide to try and dispute Huerta’s statement. The aide was met by students raising their fists and turning their backs. Not long after, Horne, followed by his replacement John Huppenthal, initiated measures to remove the Mexican American studies program from the school, an effort that culminated in the passing of Arizona House Bill 2281 (HB 2281).

This second controversial bill declared that “public school pupils should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals and not be taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people.” No state schools should include classes and programs that do any of the following:

  • Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
  • Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
  • Be designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
  • Advocate for ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

When John Acosta — the former teacher of the Mexican American Studies course at Tucson High Magnet School — was questioned about the motives of his course, it became obvious that no part of his curriculum was intended to promote the overthrow of the United States government, nor to promote resentment toward a race or class of people. As reported by the Atlantic, only three percent of the 55,000 students in the district were enrolled in the course, which itself aligned with multicultural principles of engagement, and in particular, this evidence-based finding: Students who sees themselves reflected in the information being studied begin to identify as relevant learners and can better locate themselves in an historical arc of learning. Far from promoting resentment toward a race or class of people — as lawmakers alleged — educators were fostering a sense of inclusion.

The Rise of Ethnic Studies

Students and teachers in Tucson, the West Coast, and the greater Southwest were not deterred for long. A community of students and teachers as well as lawyers and activists were not only vocal about the bill, but they would also eventually prove successful in getting the banned ethnic studies course its day in court. A federal appeals court has maintained that the ban was motivated by “discriminatory intent”; the law banning the course is still being disputed.

Given the findings from the Orozco and Lopez study of the impact of SB 1070, the ethnic studies ban must have similarly created stressful educational conditions for students. After Horne threatened the loss of substantial funding for the Tucson Unified School District if the Mexican American studies course wasn’t dropped, for instance, other schools adjusted their curricula, and some even banned books with a Mexican American focus.

These events gained attention across Arizona and far beyond — and while positive change is still pending in Arizona, it has, thanks to that state’s example, been seen elsewhere. National media outlets picked up the story when students protested during a board meeting at which the preservation of the course was being discussed. Teachers and Latin@ authors in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Mexico, and Texas began to rally. As recently as this past November, the city of Oakland, California passed a bill requiring all schools to offer ethnic studies courses within the next three years. Every school in San Francisco now offers an ethnic studies course, as well. And the Texas State Board of Education has responded to the tumult caused by Arizona lawmakers by finally approving ethnic studies materials for adoption by the state.

The takeaway from all of this is crucial — students who experience explicit or implicit discrimination from state and national policies are proven to be educationally affected in negative ways. Conversely, communities that support diversity and incorporate multicultural programming help foster equality in education, and ultimately, equality of opportunity for all students.

Read the latest updates and opinions on education-related news, and ask a question to find out whether K–12 schools near you offer ethnic studies courses.

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