Unclear if Uvalde tragedy will soften Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s tough talk on undocumented students as his anti-immigration policies face scrutiny
by Jo Napolitano, The 74
This story was produced by The 74, a non-profit, independent news organization focused on education in America.
Crops rotting in the field. Classrooms left half empty. State economies hemorrhaging.
Local law enforcement under federal scrutiny.
That’s what Texas could face if Gov. Greg Abbott, currently weathering sharp criticism for his handling of one of the worst school shootings in the nation’s history and for the gun rights he promotes, continues to target the undocumented with policies and rhetoric that some say violate their constitutional rights and place them in danger.
Not only has he stopped the licensing of facilities that house unaccompanied minors, leaving those young people unprotected, but on May 4, the governor said he’d like to “revisit” the 1982 Supreme Court Plyler v. Doe decision. The landmark case ruled that states cannot refuse students based upon their immigration status.
“I think we will resurrect that case and challenge this issue again, because the expenses are extraordinary and the times are different than when Plyler v. Doe was issued many decades ago,” Abbott said.
It’s unclear if the governor will continue to single out these children after the May 24 tragedy in Uvalde, a small, predominantly Hispanic community about 80 miles from the Mexican border where 19 fourth-graders and two teachers were gunned down in their classroom. It was a Customs and Border Patrol tactical team, stationed in the region, that eventually killed the 18-year-old shooter.
Dispelling rumors that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, who also responded to the Uvalde shooting, could potentially deport grieving parents, the agency said it is no longer trying to ferret out the undocumented in the community because it is now a protected area in the wake of the massacre.
Abbott’s office has not returned numerous calls and emails. But his anti-immigrant stance didn’t change much after the 2019 Wal-Mart shooting spree, which targeted Hispanics in El Paso, killing 23 people.
With a Supreme Court decision that could potentially undo Roe v. Wade — its now-threatened status might have embolden Abbott on Plyler — just weeks away, some advocates worry the governor’s earlier rhetoric about undocumented students could somehow morph into reality.
“We are seeing pretty appalling attacks on children from all angles,” said Michael Tafelski, senior supervising attorney for children’s rights at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Plyler has been a Supreme Court precedent for 30-plus years. We are coming up on the anniversary in June. We hope the court still has a respect for precedent.”
Using schools to capture undocumented parents
Similarly punitive measures enacted more than a decade ago in Arizona and Alabama left a costly and painful legacy. While many of those regulations have since been gutted, the damage remains: The trust between undocumented immigrants and two of the most critical institutions in their communities, law enforcement and schools, is broken.
And the financial toll has been enormous with losses in the billions.
Arizona signed into law some of the most draconian anti-immigration policies in the country in April 2010 through SB 1070. Much of the law was eventually struck down quickly, but the controversial “show me your papers” provision remained for years: It required state law enforcement to ask people deemed “suspicious” of being undocumented to provide proof of legal immigration status during routine traffic stops.
Research shows harsh anti-immigration practices, which often lead to racial profiling, have a profound and lasting impact on children — starting in the womb. A study of the infamous 2008 Postville, Iowa, raid linked the sweep to underweight and premature births for the women caught in the roundup.
Large scale dragnets also can cause post-traumatic stress disorder in children, especially for those whose parents are deported. Researchers say some of the impact is state specific.
Anti-immigration measures in Arizona increased the probability of Hispanic students feeling sad and prompted them to reduce their physical activity, a 2020 study found.
“States don’t realize the extent of the effects of those laws,” said Cesar L. Escalante, professor of agricultural and applied economics at the University of Georgia and an author of the Arizona study. “They do not intend to harm legal residents with their immigration policies, but they have unintended consequences.”
Perhaps no county was more infamous for its poor treatment of Hispanic residents than Maricopa, home to Joe Arpaio, “America’s toughest sheriff.” His armed and sometimes drunken volunteer posse for years rounded up Hispanic-looking men and women in terrifying raids that often ensnared those who lived in the country legally.
Arpaio’s law enforcement agents would target schools in communities with large immigrant populations in an effort to capture undocumented parents, a tactic that badly eroded a once strong bond: Not only did these practices discourage parents from visiting campus to advocate for their children, it sometimes made them pull their kids from class entirely.
“Schools are usually a place where families really feel safe,” said Rachel Prandini, staff attorney with The Immigrant Legal Resource Center, a national advocacy organization. “It’s hard to build back those relationships.”
Arpaio was criminally charged in 2016 by the U.S. Justice Department for continuing to unlawfully target Latino drivers, ignoring an earlier court order against the practice. He was ultimately pardoned by President Donald Trump, but no matter his personal fate, the resulting litigation and reforms cost taxpayers more than $200 million.
Arizona lost hundreds of millions more in tourism revenue and canceled conventions. Had its anti-immigration measures remained intact, the outcome might have been worse: The Center for American Progress found that if its laws made life “so miserable for undocumented immigrants that they leave the state,” it would shrink Arizona’s economy by $48.8 billion.
“It was sheer terror,” said Isabel Rubio, former head of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama. “People didn’t know what to do. Our office was overrun with people waiting in every available space. This went on for weeks and weeks. The despair, angst and fear in the faces of the families we were helping was heartbreaking.”
Teachers lectured to vacant chairs as schools grappled with their new role as immigration monitors, desperate to make students feel welcomed while also complying with the new regulations.
“The absences in the schools skyrocketed,” Rubio said. “Children literally just weren’t there.”
Designed to regulate every element of an undocumented immigrant’s life, HB 56 prohibited those without papers from working, renting apartments, accessing utilities and applying for non-driver state identification cards. It criminalized the harboring or transporting of the undocumented in a provision that enraged local religious groups, including the volunteers who drove them to church, the grocery store or doctor’s appointments.
It also required schools to obtain students’ immigration status — and that of their parents — and required administrators to report such information to the feds to rid the state of these children as a cost-saving measure.
“We’re trying not to be punitive and mean, but we do want to accomplish our mission,” said Alabama House Majority Leader Micky Hammon in 2011. “We want to discourage illegal immigrants from coming to Alabama and prevent those that are already here from putting down roots.”
Hammon was later sentenced to prison for converting campaign contributions to personal use.
HB 56 also barred undocumented students from enrolling in or attending state college or receiving financial aid: Their status could be obtained at any time.
Economists say it cost the state billions. Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah passed similar measures.
Escalante said policy makers, eager to score political points, don’t often consider the economic impact of their proposals. Or they posit outcomes that are later proven wrong: Immigration-related restrictions that took hold around the Great Recession, touted for opening up jobs for American citizens, failed to attract native-born workers, Escalante said: The labor was too hard and the pay too little.
But if politicians are ignorant of the outcome of their own schemes, their constituents are even less informed.
“The public will only form an opinion based on a political conviction,” he said.
We grow up proud to be Texan
Abbott said the federal government should cover the cost of educating undocumented students. The implication, as with much of his immigration policies, is that they are a financial burden. But research proves otherwise.
A May 2020 study found the revenue collected from the undocumented in 2018 exceeded what the state spent to serve them — including on education — resulting in a net benefit of nearly $420.9 million that year alone: For every dollar Texas spent on the undocumented, they provided $1.21 in revenue, according to The Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University in Houston.
No one knows for sure how many undocumented people live in America, though the U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimates there were 11.4 million in 2018 with 1.94 million living in Texas.
There were roughly 160,000 undocumented students in the state’s K-12 public schools in 2018-19. Texas spent $9,374 per student that year, totaling 1.5 billion for this group.
It’s unclear whether these students are growing in number. The pandemic has had the opposite impact on schools nationwide, including those in Texas: The state served 5,371,586 students in 2020-21, down from 5,431,910 in 2018-19, a difference of 60,324.
An undocumented student from the Rio Grande Valley who graduated valedictorian of her high school class in 2018 and who weeks ago earned her bachelor’s degree in engineering from a state university, worries about what could happen in Texas. She called out Abbott for his lack of compassion toward students like her.
“Mr. Abbott does not realize that the majority of the undocumented children that already live here have no idea that they are not, in fact, citizens,” said the teen, who asked not to be identifed because of her immigration status. “We grow up being proud to be Texan, dreaming of one day supporting our family and community, only to realize later that our own state does not claim us. By ripping away the opportunity of obtaining an education, Texas will lose future trade specialists, engineers, technicians, nurses and so many more professionals that have no other alternative but to succeed. And the only way to succeed is through education.”
Texas’s anti-immigration measures have also attracted federal attention. Operation Lone Star, a multi-billion dollar border security initiative launched in 2021 to curb the drug trade, is under scrutiny by the Treasury Department after it was discovered that more than $1 billion in federal COVID aid was routed to the controversial program.
In addition to its suspect financing, Operation Lone Star has yielded questionable results: The governor has already been sued over its validity and at least one case has been dismissed after the presiding judge found a man’s arrest unconstitutional: More than 400 other, similar cases, are now up for consideration.
Adding to the tension, Abbott is considering declaring an “invasion” on the Mexican border, a move that would give him authority to use state personnel to deport immigrants, placing them at odds with federal law.
Alison Parker, managing director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit that investigates allegations of abuse around the world, said Texas has risen to “the top of the list” of her group’s concerns. She called Abbott’s agenda “contrary to universal human rights that apply to all people” and Texas’s immigration tactics “short-sighted, xenophobic and discriminatory.”
Abbott’s rhetoric escalated even further as the nation seemed poised to remove a Trump-era health provision called Title 42 that has kept tens of thousands of asylum seekers south of the border for years, even as immigration regulations were just softened for Ukrainian and Russian refugees. A Trump-appointed federal judge in Louisiana recently blocked Biden from lifting the order.
Texas’s governor, who recently chided the president for supplying undocumented babies with formula while the nation faces a shortage, despite the fact that the country is legally obligated to feed these children, recently began busing the undocumented to Washington, D.C.
Harkening back to Alabama’s plan, Abbott last summer restricted ground transportation for those who have crossed into the country illegally, directing the Texas Department of Public Safety to stop, reroute or impound any vehicle suspected of driving them.
Earlier that year, Abbott issued a disaster declaration for dozens of counties based on the claim that undocumented immigrants pose “an ongoing and imminent threat” of widespread damage, injury and loss of life and property, including human trafficking, violent crime and threats to public health. Uvalde County, home of Texas’s most recent massacre, was among them.
Such declarations are typically reserved for natural disasters. The move follows his January 2020 announcement to federal authorities that the state would not participate in the refugee resettlement program, citing the “disproportionate migration issues” in Texas.
But while Abbott’s tough-on-immigration stance could earn short-term gains, it could backfire politically as it did in California. Some credit harsh 1990s-era anti-immigration legislation — including denying public education to undocumented students — with motivating and empowering Latino voters and turning the once-GOP state blue.
Even in Alabama, after tens of thousands of immigrants fled when the new laws were enacted, the Hispanic population has grown.
“Even with the best efforts of these elected officials, folks keep on coming,” said Carlos E. Alemán, who now runs the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama. “There are still opportunities for them to build families here. This is a very resilient community. Despite the conditions they arrive to, they still find ways to make lives for themselves.”
Jo Napolitano is a senior reporter at The 74.