The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Metro Atlanta school officials plan to closely monitor their enrollment figures over the summer now that Georgia’s tough new immigration enforcement law is about to take effect.
The reason: Many illegal immigrants could leave the state and pull their children out of public schools if opponents are unable to block the law in federal court.
It’s too early to cite trends in Georgia. But Arizona, which passed a similar immigration law last year, suspects it is the reason hundreds of children have left some of its schools.
A lot is at stake for Georgia schools. Student enrollment changes can affect state and federal funding schools receive per student, staffing and school construction plans and even how school attendance boundaries are drawn.
Proponents of the law say Georgia taxpayers will save money in the long run by reducing the state’s student population growth and the need for programming for non-English speaking students.
The immigration law is scheduled to take effect July 1. But a federal judge could rule as soon as Monday on a request by civil and immigrant rights groups to block the law. They argue the law is unconstitutional. State lawmakers deny that and predict the law will stand.
The measure doesn’t specifically address schools. But it does empower police to investigate the immigration status of certain suspects and arrest illegal immigrants.
That provision is the one that most frightens those who say they are readying to flee Georgia.
The potential impact for schools is unclear. School officials say federal law prohibits them from inquiring about a child’s immigration status.
But the state does track students who receive special English language lessons. There were 82,112 enrolled across the state during the school year that just ended, according to the state Department of Education. Over half of them — 42,581 — were in Atlanta-area schools.
It’s unknown how many of those students are in the country illegally. Georgia spends $8,761 to educate each student on average — not including federal funds — meaning the potential fallout from a mass exodus could be millions of dollars in lost revenue for schools having to calibrate spending post-recession.
Gwinnett County had the most English-language learners in the Atlanta area with 18,834, followed by DeKalb County at 9,329.
DeKalb Area Assistant Superintendent Kenneth Bradshaw said he has heard anecdotes of families withdrawing their children from schools because of the new immigration enforcement law. He said he was going to discuss with other school officials how an exodus of students could impact staffing plans.
“There is just a feeling of being unsettled, just not knowing,” Bradshaw said of the reports he has heard of students leaving. “We are going to start monitoring that probably within the next week or two to really gauge this.”Proponents of Georgia’s new law say illegal immigrants are burdening taxpayer-funded resources in Georgia, including public schools. The Federation for American Immigration Reform has estimated that 133,262 children of illegal immigrants attend Georgia’s public schools, costing taxpayers $1.4 billion a year. FAIR — a Washington-based organization that advocates tougher immigration enforcement — says it based its findings on census data.
Catherine Davis of Stone Mountain is glad the new law is encouraging illegal immigrants to pull their children out of DeKalb’s cash-strapped school system.
“I don’t see a downside to that because — especially here in DeKalb County — we are talking now about having to close schools and go in different directions to try to give the children the best education,” said Davis, a member of the Dustin Inman Society, which advocates enforcement of U.S. immigration and employment laws.
“Smaller class sizes are certainly going to be a benefit in an environment like we have here in DeKalb County.”
Republican state Rep. Mike Jacobs, who voted for the law and represents part of north DeKalb, said he is sympathetic with school officials who will be forced to deal with any fallout from the measure.
“We are coming up on the school year that will tell us a great deal,” Jacobs said. “For better or for worse, school systems do not turn on a dime. It’s more like turning a battleship.”
Rutila Mateo is among the illegal immigrants in north DeKalb who is considering leaving Georgia. Sitting with her four daughters in the living room of their apartment, Mateo described how she entered the country illegally with her first daughter 14 years ago. She gave birth to three more daughters here.
Her oldest, who also is here illegally, is set to attend Dunwoody High School. Another daughter is attending summer school at Path Academy charter school in Brookhaven. The youngest two daughters have been attending Cary Reynolds Elementary School in Doraville.
Mateo said her husband was deported last year after Gwinnett County police arrested him for driving with an expired license. Mateo, who cleans apartments to support her family, worries she also could be arrested, deported and separated from her kids. At the same time, she is fearful the raging drug violence in Mexico could harm her daughters.
“I’m very worried about the situation in Mexico,” Mateo said in Spanish. “I want my daughters to get a better education than I had.”Mateo is now seeking a Mexican passport for her eldest daughter, Stephanie, so they may return to their native country this year. The teen just graduated from Path Academy, where she directed and starred in a musical production of “Hairspray.”
“I don’t want to move. My whole life is here. I’m afraid of what will happen in Mexico,” said Stephanie, who demonstrated in March against Georgia’s new law with several thousand protesters outside the state Capitol.
Other illegal immigrants are preparing to leave Georgia for other states.
Fidel Hernandez of Doraville is considering moving to Los Angeles or Las Vegas, where he has relatives. He crossed the Mexican border illegally more than 20 years ago. His wife is here illegally. So is his 17-year-old son, who attends Lakeside High School. Hernandez has three U.S.-born children, two of whom attend Path Academy. The youngest is preparing to attend Cary Reynolds.
A handyman, Hernandez drives to work without a license. He is fearful he and his wife could be arrested and deported. He said he recently read about a drug-fueled mass killing in his hometown in Mexico.
“My kids have been here all their lives, so I don’t know how to handle it,” he said before adding about the enforcement of Georgia’s new law: “If they get rough, we are going to start packing and get out of town.”
Gwinnett and Fulton county school officials said they won’t have anything to report about enrollment changes until after the next school year starts. An Atlanta school official said the city’s enrollment has remained consistent and that he hasn’t heard of students withdrawing from city schools because of the new law. A Cobb County schools spokesman said the number of immigrant students dropped in his county by 308 over the last two years, but he said he wasn’t certain of the cause.
“We will keep an eye on immigrant enrollment figures as the next school year gets under way,” Cobb schools spokesman Jay Dillon said.
To get an idea of what could happen later this summer, Atlanta area school officials could look to Arizona. Phoenix-area school officials say they think they have lost many students because of the new law.
For example, enrollment at Creighton Elementary School in Phoenix dropped by about 200 students last year after the state enacted its anti-illegal immigration law, said the school’s principal, Rosemary Agneessens.
She attributed the decline to the new law as well as the nation’s souring economy. Consequently, Creighton eliminated eight staff positions.
Republican Senate President Russell Pearce and other supporters of the Arizona law say it has saved hundreds of millions of dollars by reducing the impact of illegal immigrants on public schools and prisons.
“This is a savings to the taxpayer,” Pearce said.
Teachers, meanwhile, are reporting some initial impact at DeKalb’s Path Academy, where 70 percent of students are Hispanic and 88 percent are eligible for free or reduced price meals. Some children of immigrants have been distracted by the law and have been difficult to motivate, staffers say. Others students have been pumping their teachers for information about the new law and ferrying it back to their parents. Some refused to attend a field trip to Washington, D.C., this year out of fear their parents would be deported while they were gone.
“We tried to reassure the kids that: ‘If something happens, we would take care of you,’ ” social studies teacher Robin Elms said.
Supporters of Georgia’s new law said they sympathize with the children but fault their parents.
“The attention is often on the children, but it is never focused where it should be — on the parents,” said Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “Parents ultimately have a responsibility to not put their children into a situation that could cause them to be in harm’s way or separated.”
AJC staff writers Nancy Badertscher and Jaime Sarrio and Mundo Hispanico staff writer Mario Guevara contributed to this article.