Stigmatizing Children: The True Cost of Arizona's Immigration Law

Adriana Sosa was nine when her family was pulled over by the police. This was a few years ago in Illinois, though, not in Arizona this past April. An English-speaking child of Spanish-speaking parents, Adriana had to translate for the police and her father, but she didn't have to explain why some of her family had immigration papers and others did not. The police didn't ask her. Nor did she have to worry that her brother would be thrown in jail, as she might today if her family lived in Arizona.

One in five children in the U.S. today is the child of an immigrant. Many are U.S. citizens. Most have grown up here. But some have friends and family members who are "unauthorized" residents. Those who do have full legal rights may not look like everyone's ideas of an American. And their families may not "sound" American either, when they speak with Spanish accents. Children are called upon to broker language both because they have language skills that their parents and others (such as the police) may not have, and because their parents fear being judged for their accented English.

Under a new Arizona law that effectively authorizes racial - and linguistic - profiling, any person - legal, illegal, or native born Americans - may be asked for proof of their right to be in any public space. And anyone - perhaps because they don't like the color of their neighbor's skin, or the sound of the language they speak - can sue the government if they feel the authorities are not enforcing this law.

A December news story hailed a New Mexican boy as a hero when he served as an interpreter for the emergency crew that was sent to rescue 50 passengers after a bus crash. Might 13-year-old Jared Martínez be willing to step into that role in Arizona today? Or would he fear that translating would audibly mark him and his family as immigrants, even more than their complexions?

I was a third grade public school teacher in Los Angeles in 1994 when California's Proposition 187 was passed. Promoted as the "Save Our State" initiative, this law denied public services to undocumented immigrants. Although it was eventually ruled unconstitutional, for several long months many of my students lived in fear that they could be deported from the schoolhouse door. Parents wondered if teachers would report them to immigration authorities. Children talked openly about how, "American people don't like us." News reports on the situation in Arizona document a similar, generalized fear among the children of immigrants.

The new Arizona law, with another misguided title, "Support our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhood Act," doesn't target children in particular, but like California's Proposition 187, it doesn't exclude them either. Regardless, children will be impacted. Those that were not born here will be subject to arrest if they don't carry papers. Those that have such papers may see their parents, siblings, cousins or friends hauled off to jail, perhaps while having to do the explaining to police and family members. Most certainly, they will learn the most painful lesson of all: that they do not really belong here - even if they have full rights of citizenship, and even if this is the only place they have known.

As Adriana's mother studied for a U.S. citizenship exam, Adriana once again served as interpreter. Together they learned that the Constitution is the "supreme law of the land." The Arizona law may soon be judged unconstitutional, as Proposition 187 and other, similar state and local laws have been, but what lasting lesson will its passage leave on children like Adriana Sosa, Jared Martínez - or your children, or mine?

UCLA Education Professor Marjorie Faulstich Orellana is the author of "Translating Childhoods: Immigrant Youth, Language, and Culture (Rutgers University Press 2009).