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Juan Crow Laws in Arizona

Sporting long dark hair, a college tee, and a bright smile, Silvia Rodriguez Vega, a 23-year-old graduate student earning her master's in education at Harvard University, is a far cry from the menacing mendicant stereotype conjured up by segregationist lawmakers back home. But in Arizona—where she settled at age two with her undocumented Mexican parents—bright students just like her are routinely persecuted by a fistful of legislators bent on making their young lives as difficult as possible.

Rodriguez Vega has long lived in their crosshairs. In 2006, while a sophomore at Arizona State University, she found herself the target of a heavy-handed ballot initiative, known as Prop 300, that sought to deny public funding and in-state tuition to thousands of undocumented students.

Crafted and entered onto the ballot by a contingent of devoutly anti-immigrant lawmakers including state Sen. Russell Pearce (R), the bill unabashedly targeted undocumented—predominately Latino—students. Voters overwhelmingly cast their ballots in favor of the measure (70 percent), and, in the blink of an eye, Rodriguez Vega’s tuition tripled and her merit-based scholarships were revoked. With no apparent way of paying her university fees, she contemplated dropping out of school altogether.

“I felt that my dreams were over.” Rodriguez Vega recalls. “I remember feeling devastated by my community … betrayed by 70 percent of Arizona, and it made me feel like they didn’t understand what they voted for. Every time I saw someone I would wonder if they voted yes or no….It was totally devastating.”

While Rodriguez managed to rebound—carving out a spot for herself at Harvard even as she privately raised funds for her increasingly costly education—many others were not so fortunate. The year Prop 300 took effect, nearly 5,000 students lost their in-state tuition and merit-based scholarships. As a result, many dropped out of school. In 2010, the law affected as many as 10,000 students, according to Arizona’s Joint Legislative Budget Committee [PDF]. Its impact on undocumented Latinos—who are among the most impoverished of Arizona’s residents and already face disproportionately high drop-out rates—was profound.

Arizona set a powerful precedent with Prop 300, becoming the first state to categorically ban undocumented college students from receiving tuition breaks and public funding. Since then, Colorado has passed a similar measure, and South Carolina and Georgia have cavalierly forged ahead of their predecessors by barring undocumented students from attending state colleges and universities altogether.

The end of ‘equal opportunity’?

But Prop 300 proved to be just the beginning of a broader effort to reshape Arizona’s public education system according to the ideals—if not expressly in the image—of Arizona’s leading men: Pearce, the infamous author of Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant law, SB 1070; Rep. Steve Montenegro (R), the Republican legislature’s token Latino; former state senator (and now state treasurer) Dean Martin (R); and attorney general-elect Tom Horne (R), the former superintendent of public instruction and mastermind behind the recently passed ethnic studies ban.

In the past four years, these anti-immigrant blowhards, with the Republican-controlled legislature at their backs, have attempted to pass a number of expressly anti-immigrant bills affecting students and youth, with mixed results. This year, however, proved to be the year of the immigration hawk. Riding high on the 2010 passage of SB 1070, a cohort of die-hard lawmakers successfully revived two pivotal—and previously quashed—education measures: One that banned equal opportunity programs (Prop 107), and another that banned K-12 ethnic studies (HB 2281).

The deliberately worded Prop 107, which has been misleadingly touted as an “affirmative action ban”—and offensively titled the Arizona Civil Rights Amendment—purports to eliminate institutional discrimination by barring the consideration of race, ethnicity, or gender in the operation of state-funded programs. In reality, it achieves the reverse, effectively undermining a number of university- and college-level programs designed to counter institutionalized racism and sexism.

“We don’t actually have affirmative action in Arizona,” explains state Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D), a vocal opponent of the measure. “What we do have are very robust programs that provide support for students who are both women and communities of color, to ensure that they have the opportunities to succeed.”

The programs, which will no longer benefit from state funding as a result of Prop 107’s passage, include a number of publicly funded diversity and retention efforts aimed at historically underrepresented college students including Native Americans, Latinos, African Americans and women. Departments in traditionally male-dominated fields (like the hard sciences), for example, typically fund programs designed to increase women’s representation. Other programs may provide minority students with specialized support services such as advising, tutoring, and financial assistance. Prop 107 disallows these initiatives, stripping already disadvantaged students of resources critical to their academic success.

Though 107 passed with 59 percent of the vote, opponents of the measure argue that its wording was intended to mislead, while referencing its previous defeat as evidence of the legislature’s chicanery.

“I knew that it would pass, because just the crafting of the language implies that it would prevent inequality in education and there would be no discrimination,” says Carmen Cornejo, executive director of the Arizona-based Committee for the Support and Development of the American Nation’s Students(CADENA), an organization committed to increasing educational opportunities for Latinos.

“Prop 107 was [attempted] before with a referendum but didn’t get enough signatures,” she adds. “Unfortunately, the conservatives in the Arizona legislature have several ways to pass legislation they want.”

Indeed, Prop 107’s road to the ballot is artful, to say the least. The measure began as a 2008 “citizen-sponsored” initiative promoted by the anti-affirmative action activist Ward Connerly, who has coordinated similar campaigns in other states. Its goal was the categorical elimination of publicly funded equal opportunity programs.

The initiative never came to fruition, however, after Rep. Sinema—along with 1,000 volunteers—discovered that more than 100,000 signatures submitted in support of the measure were fraudulent. Evidently, the proposal’s illustrious supporters included the likes of Jimmy Carter, John and Robert Kennedy, and “John Hancocks.”

The following year, Pearce commandeered the cause and, eschewing Connerly’s citizen-sponsored approach, introduced the “affirmative action” ban into the senate where, in stages, it was added as a strike-everything amendment, or an amendment which proposes to delete the entire text of the existing bill and substitute new language, to an unrelated House bill before eventually landing on the 2010 ballot. (It needed voter approval, since any measure in Arizona that proposes to change the state’s constitution requires it.) While a few other states have imposed similar bans—in large part due to Connerly’s efforts—Prop 107 is the first such measure to have been referred to the ballot by the state legislature.

The extent to which Prop 107 will alter the diversity and quality of public education in Arizona remains to be seen, but others states that have adopted similar measures have seen chilling consequences. After California and Michigan imposed Connerly-sponsored affirmative action bans, for example, admission of black students dropped precipitously—by up to 50 percent in California—and has never fully recovered.

In short, notes Rodriguez Vega, “Prop 107 is going to do to citizen students what Prop 300 did to me … It will disenfranchise [them] from the education system.”

Extinguishing Ethnic Studies

Just weeks after the state legislature passed SB 1070, it approved another controversial measure directed at Latino students: An ethnic studies ban that bars any K-12 curriculum “designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group.” Like Prop 107, the ethnic studies ban boasts a dubious legislative history. Pearce initially introduced a much more incendiary version of the measure in 2008 (again, he introduced it as a strike-everything amendment to an unrelated bill) at the request of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, an avowed opponent of Mexican-American studies.

The original bill, which sought to restrict all manner of gender-, race-, and ethnicity-based studies and clubs at the K-12 and college levels, provoked intense controversy.

Gregorio Montes de Oca, a community activist and recent Arizona State University graduate, remembers the unprecedented level of mobilization incited by the bill. “It really brought everybody out of the woodwork,” he recalls. “That was the most we were able to ever collaborate with other students of color on campus. People of all different colors and genders. Our coalition was huge.”

Even conservative members of the legislature found the bill inflammatory, repeatedly lambasting it in session, before ultimately halting it altogether a few months later. Soon after, state Rep. Montenegro (also a sponsor of the bill that became Pearce’s other brainchild, Prop 107) introduced a more calculated version of the measure into the House.

The new bill, HB 2281, was more limited in scope than the last: In addition to affecting only K-12 academic programs, the revised measure became narrow enough to exclude several ethnic studies disciplines and specifically exempted Native American studies, which is federally protected. It was ultimately approved while an unabashed Horne openly admitted that the bill’s chief target was the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD)’s Mexican American studies program, La Raza studies, which he claimed promoted anti-American ideals and racism against Whites—an unfounded claim that has motivated 11 TUSD instructors to file suit against Horne.

In a testimony before the Arizona House Committee on Education, Horne offered largely anecdotal evidence of the program’s allegedly anti-American bent and articulated several of his own personal issues with the program. He had personally observed, for example, that La Raza students are "rude."

Horne also quoted a single line from a single textbook, claiming that La Raza students were being taught to “[take] the Mexican side of the battle at the Alamo.” And he reaffirmed his own personal aversion to one high school’s decision to host civil rights activist and United Farm Workers founder Dolores Huerta—whom Horne erroneously dismissed in his testimony as “a girlfriend of Cesar Chavez.”

For these, and other reasons, Horne declared that La Raza studies—and, by extension, all race- or ethnicity-based studies—promoted racial division. Yet Horne’s convictions belie his own admission that he has never actually observed a La Raza course.

“Tom Horne has never set foot in these classrooms, and he’s said so” argues Rep. Sinema, who opposed the measure. “Well, I have, and I can tell you that what these courses provide is an honest and accurate view of America’s struggles, challenges and the opportunities we attained after overcoming those challenges.”

“The premise of the bill is factually inaccurate,” she adds. “It’s founded on a lie.”

The program’s students tend to agree. Montes de Oca, an alum of TUSD’s La Raza summer institute, views the defamed program as critical to the academic success and personal well-being of Chicano students.

“Prior to entering these programs, [kids] are on the verge of dropping out … they’re lacking that self-worth,” Montes de Oca explains. “They come into these programs and they learn about their culture, their history—and not just Chicano students, but White, Black, Asian—and they’re outperforming everyone else in the school. It’s amazing when you give someone their dignity back, give them some self worth, what that can do across the board. Ethnic studies gives that back to you.”

Rodriguez similarly affirms the value of ethnic studies—even attributing her current academic success to her Chicano studies education. "Without being able to understand the community I come from, I know I wouldn’t be here [at Harvard]," she says. "Without Chicano Studies it would be very hard to understand how I fit into the system … It helped me see that we are a valuable part of society. "

Montes de Oca and Rodriguez agree that ethnic studies classes like the ones they took teach economically and socially marginalized students that their present circumstances are historically and politically rooted—and can ultimately be overcome.

But for those members of Arizona’s legislature who regard ethnic studies as a sinister black box of production, endlessly churning out dissidents and anarchists, that potential is entirely lost.

Arizona’s approach to public education looks bleak

The irony of this debacle is that, while conservative lawmakers claim that “discrimination” (whether against citizens or white citizens) should not be publicly funded, the state currently funds religiously discriminatory private school scholarships. Since 1997, the state has spent upwards of $25 millions in public money to fund scholarships to private schools that admit based on religious affiliation.

The state is currently defending the practice before the Supreme Court. Though a clear contradiction of the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state, the practice illustrates a double standard on the part of the state legislature: In education, preferential treatment based on religion is acceptable, but preferential treatment based on race or ethnicity is not.

“It’s pretty simple, right?” says Montes de Oca. “It’s a threat to the status quo. It’s allowing people of color to get educated, who would then, with time, become professionals in the workforce, then in the government—eventually leveling the playing field. And that’s not what the folks in power want.”

Meanwhile, the collective impact of Arizona’s arguably chauvinistic approach to public education looks bleak. With the imposition of the ethnic studies ban, Arizona’s growing population of Latino K-12 students will suffer curricula censored by lawmakers bent on preserving the state’s racial and cultural homogeneity. Under Prop 300, undocumented high school graduates will continue to be deprived of affordable, in-state higher education. And now that Prop 107 is law, minority citizens reliant on dedicated public funds and student support will face new barriers as a result of their race, ethnicity, and gender.

“You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” says Montes de Oca. “The stereotype of our communities is that we have low-wage service jobs, drugs, violence—but for the folks who able to make it out and do something, [the legislature] makes it literally impossible for them to get a degree. You have to have a degree to increase your socio-economic status.”

While the DREAM Act—a bill tabled in the Senate last week and, if passed, will create a path to conditional legal status for youth who attend college or serve in the military —would generate new educational opportunities for undocumented students, it would not counteract the collective impact of Arizona’s recent spate of anti-immigrant legislation.

“Even if the DREAM Act passes, state legislation is going to stay in place,” explains Cornejo. “Kids are still going to have a hard time here in Arizona, but at least they are going to be free to have a social security number and an opportunity to work and pay for their classes…At least they [would] have hope in the future. Now they have no hope.”

Meanwhile, the state of affairs in Arizona looks bleaks as Pearce, newly elected as the president of the state senate, gears up to push two new bills in January: One would mandate immigration status checks in public schools and another would require parents to prove their own citizenship before a birth certificate could be issued for their U.S.-born children. If passed, the bills would likely be ruled as unconstitutional—as undocumented students have a federally protected right to public education and the 14th amendment ensures citizenship at birth, regardless of parents’ immigration status. But Pearce’s confident push for the measures certainly sets the tone of 2011’s legislative session, and could hint at the year’s larger agenda.

Rodriguez Vega, for her part, is nevertheless optimistic. Living through and, later, witnessing the steady disenfranchisement of Latino youth in Arizona and across the country has profoundly reinforced her commitment to education. Though she managed to carve out her own niche in the system, she is all too aware that she is a rare exception: A bittersweet embodiment of both the lost potential of Arizona’s Latino youth and the myopic prejudice of its leaders.

“When I was younger, I wanted to be in politics, go to law school, and advocate for the community,” she recalls. That aspiration drastically shifted, however, after Prop 300 impressed upon her the critical importance of education. Now studying education at Harvard, she devotes much of her spare time to lobbying for the passage of the DREAM Act, which would create new educational opportunities for her and others like her.

“We were part of this history before there was a United States,” Rodriguez Vega says, “and we’re going to be here no matter what laws continue to pass.”

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