May 2010
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Misguided Immigration Law Indeed: Racial Profiling in Education

written by Ann Kennedy

Recently Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona signed legislation that makes it a crime to be in the U.S. illegally [1]. The new law also “requires local police officers to question people about their immigration status if there is reason to suspect they are illegal immigrants” [2], among other things. From my perspective as a teacher of at-risk adolescent immigrants, I must agree with President Obama that this law is “misguided” [3].

First of all, most of my high school English language learners (ELLs) are involuntary immigrants, as described by John Ogbu [4] in his well-regarded article, Voluntary and Involuntary Minorities: A Cultural-Ecological Theory of School Performance with Some Implications for Education. The ELLs at my school have been reunited with their mothers or fathers after years of having lived apart.  Our students were sent for by their families who had already been established in the US.  Our students were “dropped” into a new culture and lifestyle, forced to learn a new language, and obligated to show gratitude to their well-intentioned mothers and/or fathers. (I use the passive voice purposefully here). Some students tell me their harrowing stories of coming to the U.S. They often walked with strangers across countries, swam across the Rio Grande, tolerated being transported in standing-room-only, non-ventilated trucks, led by coyotes. They were told to obey; these attempts to leave their beloved grandmothers, whether in Central America, Africa, or Asia, were not their idea. I will skip over the problems of reuniting with their families [5] and jump to the issues in the high school classroom.

In earlier blogs, I have described our at-risk program—and the successes our program has achieved. At this point, I ask readers to consider life from the perspective of an involuntary adolescent immigrant student in the United States. We have established that, initially, our ELL students don’t want to be here. However, after the reality to learn English sets in, our students tend to achieve—some more quickly than others. We teachers know the power of motivation, and we work steadily toward the goal of engaging our students. We offer them academic courses of Math, Social Studies, Science, Language Arts, and Reading. In addition, we offer them what used to be called Vocational Education (VocEd), but what now is referred to as Career and Technical Education (CTE). Many students see the immediate goal of becoming responsible by gaining entrance into the working world by working toward certification in a CTE course (as opposed to paying for college). Herein lies the problem between Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 and my small world of ESL secondary education.

When our students arrive at our school, we teachers have no idea of their immigration status. In fact, we are told not to ask students directly. Therefore, I have found it interesting that one CTE teacher is able to dismiss prospective ELL students by declaring (publicly): “If you are an ELL student, don’t sign up for this class.”  I suppose this is blind racial profiling. This CTE teacher nips the problem in the bud: No immigrants need apply. Other problems have occurred during registration for CTE classes. Teachers who are worried about pass rates question the enrollment of ELLs in their classes. In this paranoiac environment, might low pass rates impact their employment status? Therefore, ELLs are not always welcomed in CTE classes—either for their lack of language proficiency or by simply having unusual last names or “looking” foreign. This blatant racial profiling has been occurring for years.

But the most profound, insidious practice occurs frequently and openly. Some ELLs are able to sign up for CTE classes with the hopes of passing a certification test. With state-acknowledged certification, students have an opportunity to find well-paying, stable employment. The tests for certification are taken in these next few weeks—late April and early May. At this writing examination, students are now learning that they need to show a social security number in order to take the certification tests. NOW, after months of studying, they must show “papers.”  Their effort to qualify to take a high-stakes certification test suddenly results in a declaration of immigration status? From the perspective of the adolescent, who has tolerated a lot on many levels, but who has studied responsibly over the course of the academic year, this news is devastating. Is this decision to ask for legal status stupid (for economic reasons) or simply cruel (from the lens of the [truly innocent] adolescent)?

As a county taxpayer, I see chaotic, misinformed decisions. I am paying taxes to educate all Arlington students. If we are not to ask legal status of students as they enter the school system, why do we ask legal status after they have been prepared and trained to gain full employment? Am I paying taxes for education that will be stymied? Am I paying taxes to set some ELLs up for failure, translated into dropping out?

As it stands, we celebrate when our ELLs achieve certification in their CTE classes. We know that employment opportunities open the door to social responsibility. If Virginia follows Arizona’s lead, and police officers ask for “papers” if they suspect adolescents are illegal, I fear we will lose the ground we have gained as ELL adolescents will be distracted from education, and will focus instead on hiding and attempting to become invisible.






[5] Kennedy, Ann Aurelia. (2000). Immigrant adolescents at risk: A story of cumulative trauma. Ph. D. Thesis, George Mason University, Abstract in Dissertation Abstracts International 61(9):3444A.

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