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New statutes effect on schools remains uncertain
Family left in limbo, waiting to hear decision on Georgia House Bill 87
Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer speaks Thursday with Gainesville High School senior Luis (last name withheld) about scholarship options for college inside the Gainesville branch of the Hall County Library System. Luis, 18, who came to the United States illegally with his family at the age of 3, is worried about the challenges he will face after graduation under Georgia’s new immigration law. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

On the last day of class at Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School this year, Principal William Campbell was approached by a student who wanted to tell him goodbye.

But this was not the ordinary end-of-the-year farewell.
The student was going back to Mexico "because of the law," Campbell said.

It's a story that might become familiar for Hall County and Gainesville schools when Georgia House Bill 87, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011, takes effect Friday.

"I lost three students who left in anticipation of the law going into effect," said Javier Vazquez, a fifth-grade teacher at Fair Street. "It was very quick. An opportunity would arise and they were gone. ... Two returned to Mexico and one went to another state."

Luis is a rising senior at Gainesville High School who came with his parents and older sister from Mexico when he was 3, and did not want his last name used. He said he's heard of friends whose families have already left and others who are making preparations to leave Georgia.

His own family is in limbo, waiting to hear whether a U.S. District Court judge will issue an injunction to stop HB 87 in its tracks. A hearing was held last Monday, and a decision is expected this week.

"I don't really want to leave," Luis said. "My parents, before they heard about all of this with the law actually being canceled, we were actually thinking about leaving like, around the beginning of July. But we're going to wait to see what happens. If it gets really bad, I guess we are leaving."

It's too early for school systems to tell what effect HB 87 will have on their enrollment, but Luis said he felt it would not be good.

"I've heard of a good bit of people moving out. And if I hear of a family, you know they have children, like I'm guessing about five children," he said.

"And all those children are leaving. You got to think about the schools they go to. If a lot of families are doing that, that's a lot of children."

Officials in Hall County and Gainesville schools say numbers in July will be the best indicators.

"There won't be any rezoning in the near future because there's so much uncertainty," Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield said. "We reduced our (English Language Learners) staff and that's partly because we're not sure how many of our ELL students will show up."

Richard Hill, Hall County associate superintendent for human resources, said the main reason ELL teachers were reduced by 18 was because of a change in service delivery. Instead of an ELL teacher co-teaching in a classroom, a group of students will be taken out of class for lessons.

"We base our staffing on student needs," Hill said. "We did not cut a group of teachers based on House Bill 87. We base our services on the needs of students, knowing we might have to make adjustments when school starts."

Schofield said there had also been a higher than normal request for records at Hall County schools.

"The (total) registration numbers this year were only down about 46 students from the previous years," Gainesville schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said in an email to The Times.

"We did not have the numbers of students coming from outside the country — although we had some — but we had ELL students coming to us from other states."

In Gainesville, students whose first language is not English must register at the system's International Center. First languages, preferred languages and languages spoken at home for Gainesville students include Chinese, Punjabi, Vietnamese and Spanish, among others.

Luis said school in English was difficult for students whose first language was Spanish.

"They do have a lot of problems. I'm sure teachers try as much as they can, but I'm sure they also get frustrated because they don't know what to do," he said.

"Luckily I got here when I was about 3 years old. I don't even remember how I learned to speak English and to write English."

As of Friday, 379 students had registered at the International Center for the 2011 school year. Since 2005, registration ranged anywhere from 880 to 987.

"In Gainesville, it's second generation," Laura Herrington, director of English as a second language and migrant services for Gainesville schools, said. "They may live with extended families (who don't have citizenship) and that may be an issue."

For Luis, the issue is himself, his older sister and his parents. His three younger siblings, ages 5, 13 and 14, all were born in the United States.

He said his youngest sister did not really understand what the bill could mean for the family.

"It's kind of sad. The other day we went to go buy something at Home Depot and they asked for a Georgia driver's license and my parents didn't really know what to do. So they gave them their Mexican ID and my little sister was worried," Luis said. "She was asking, ‘Are they going to give you your ID back? What's going to happen? Are you going to leave?'"

Herrington said she does not expect a mass exodus of Hispanic families from the Hall County area because of HB 87.

"It's not like (the kids) know Mexico. Their parents perhaps lived there, but most of them have never been to Mexico," she said. "That being said, they may move from Georgia to another state because they have different laws."

Luis said his family is considering moving to California or Colorado if worse comes to worse.

There is a possibility his immigration status will complicate his plans to go to college. He has a 4.3 weighted grade-point average and took both the SAT and ACT.

Right now he said his main challenges are finances and not having a driver's license. He doesn't fear being deported, but is afraid of what might happen should one of his parents get deported.

"We've applied for citizenship but a lot of people do it and they don't always get responses, especially if you come into the country illegally," Luis said.

"If you come in with a visa and your visa expires, I think it's a little bit easier. The only way right now that I think it's possible for me to get papers is if I marry someone who was born here."

Luis said the Gainesville area is his home, no matter his immigration status.

"I can't really go back to Mexico because there's nothing to do there. I'm better off here trying to avoid getting pulled over by the cops than be in Mexico not having anything to eat," he said. "I feel like I'm really American, but I can't really call myself that."