In Arizona, a legacy of English-only education, systemic racism and xenophobic laws create a mental health crisis among Latino students

Beatriz Limón, Arizona Luminaria


At school, Zabdi Hernández was bullied by other students because of her accent and her skin color. 

She was born in Puebla, México, and migrated to Arizona when she was 6 years old. She remembers trying to find her way in the U.S. school system, feeling like she didn’t fit in because she was a Mexican girl who spoke Spanish.

Zabdi had no one to talk to about her anxiety, fears, sadness. She was too young to fully understand that she was growing up in a state that could legally punish children for speaking Spanish and had some of the strictest immigration laws in the nation.

Zabdi remembers receiving no support from school counselors or therapists. She felt bad burdening her parents. They already had so much to deal with. 

She knew they would suffer knowing how much she was suffering in school.

“I did it alone,” she says in Spanish. “Being the oldest I had to toughen up. I didn’t want to stress out my parents.”

Zabdi Hernández has fought to pursue a university education in Arizona despite the state’s anti-immigrant laws. She is currently studying business administration at Grand Canyon University. Credit: Beatriz Limón

Zabdi is 23 now. Her voice hardens, saying she will never forget teachers placing her in English-only classes in elementary school. She remembers missing out on learning her favorite subjects.

“It had an impact on me,” she says in Spanish. “I always liked numbers and science. I applied for classes, but because of the language I spoke they thought I would not advance.”

Because Arizona’s school system labeled Zabdi an English learner, she lost the same level of access to science, math and reading classes that her peers who were not forced into English-only immersion instruction had.

English-only school segregation policies dating back nearly 25 years, systemic racism and xenophobic laws have created stark mental health barriers for Arizona’s Latino students, who make up nearly half of the state’s K-12 population and are at greater risk for mental health disparities.

Now, Arizona is facing a crisis as it ranks worst in the nation — nearly three times below national standards — for ensuring there are enough counselors to serve students. Education and health experts are calling on state leaders to act quickly before more Latino students fall through the cracks.

In 2000, Arizona legislators repealed bilingual education for students like Zabdi by passing Proposition 203, the state’s English-only law. The voter-approved measure forced children who didn’t speak English to enroll in the state’s English language learners programs for four hours a day to learn English exclusively. That means that to this day, students in Arizona who don’t speak English are legally separated from their peers and restricted from the variety of school subjects.

Arizona lawmakers eased those strict standards in 2019, giving schools the option to decrease the required English-only instruction to about two hours per day. That allowed English-language learners to spend more time with their English-speaking peers and pursue other areas of study. Still, social workers, therapists, teachers and education researchers alike worry about the limited research on Arizona schools that analyzes the mental health and emotional impact of segregating primarily Latino students learning English from the rest of the student body.

According to a 2020 UnidosUS report based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 75,000 students in Arizona schools are English learners, predominantly Spanish-speaking, with approximately 85% identifying as Latino. Credit: Beatriz Limón

There are more than 75,000 students in Arizona schools learning English, according to a 2020 UnidosUS report analyzing data by the National Center for Education Statistics. The majority of them speak Spanish as their first language and an estimated 85% are Latino. UnidosUS is the nation’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization.

Among the 2019 cohort of Arizona students who graduated in four years, English learners graduated at a rate of 57%, while Latinos who are not English learners graduated at a rate of 76% and White students graduated at a rate of 84%, according to Arizona Department of Education data for the 2019-2020 school year. (That was the last year before the pandemic, which education experts warn has yielded less reliable results in school data analysis.)

In recent years, some young Latinos in Arizona and across the nation also have faced fears that a family member or loved one will be deported under stricter immigration policies. Those fears have potential consequences for students’ mental health, school engagement, academic opportunities and future professional outcomes, according to the Migration Policy Institute’s 2020 report “Immigration Enforcement and the Mental Health of Latino High School Students.

“Among those likely to feel the effects are the approximately one-fifth of Latino youth (ages 12 to 17) who live in mixed-status families with at least one unauthorized immigrant parent, as well as the one in ten who are themselves unauthorized,” the report states.

Armando Piña is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University who specializes in child and adolescent mental health. Piña says there are more Latino students experiencing higher levels of anxiety, depression and stress-related problems compared to their White peers.

“These problems result from increased levels of inequalities, subtle and gross discrimination, micro-aggressions, and developmentally inappropriate stressors,” he said.

He believes that if Arizona truly wants to see Latino immigrant students succeed, state leaders must make a significant investment in school-based mental health and related resources for young Latinos seeking to thrive and succeed despite systemic inequalities.

“The education system must support Lx (Latinx) students by incorporating responsible standards and curricula, providing access to bilingual and bicultural academic, health, and interpersonal services in a supportive school climate that values diversity and belongingness,” said Piña, who leads the Courage Lab at ASU.

Latino students exhibit elevated levels of anxiety, depression, and stress in comparison to their White counterparts, stemming from heightened inequalities, discrimination, microaggressions, and age-inappropriate stressors. Credit: Beatriz Limón

Greater emotional and social adversity

Latino immigrant students in Arizona are susceptible to multiple and complex traumas, Piña said.

“Community violence in their country of origin, brutality in their migration trajectories, separation from family and friends, and significant hostility in the receiving country,” he said. “Add to the list, worries about parental or caregiver deportation, the challenge of learning a new language, and social isolation.”

While those mental-health stressors can contribute to academic and social integration challenges, Piña stressed that it is critical not to stigmatize or stereotype Latino students who are facing challenges through no fault of their own. 

“It is not true that Latino children and adolescents are disordered; rather they face a lot more emotional and psychosocial adversity compared to White students,” he said.

2014 study by University of Arizona and Argosy University researchers published in the Journal of Multilingual Education Research included interviews with 10 children learning English in an Arizona elementary school where between 60-70% of students were in English-only immersion programs, as well as 18 of their parents.

Parents reported their children sobbing when they had to attend school. According to the study, that was just one of a litany of “maltreatment symptoms” students participating in the English immersion programs exhibited.

Students’ other symptoms included: excessive worry about, and changes in, school performance; “verbalized fear that the teacher will hurt the children;” nightmares and/or sleep disturbances; change from positive to negative self perception; excessive crying and other symptoms of depression; headaches; stomach aches; decreased functioning in social situations; school avoidance; and withdrawal behavior.

One child exhibiting depression — identified in the study as “CST” to protect their identity — said in Spanish: “… the teacher was talking in my face. I did not understand anything and I started to cry.”

‘It still hurts me’

Zabdi’s eyes turn sad as she imagines what her future might hold if she’d had the chance to take the same classes as her English-speaking schoolmates. 

“It still hurts me,” she says, trying to maintain her fading smile.

Zabdi Hernández at the “Education Day” organized by the nonprofit Aliento at the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix in February 2024. Credit: Beatriz Limón

She tries to frame her experiences in ways that make her feel proud of how she taught herself how to face the worst a child can imagine. “I helped my parents with (translating) documents and now I help other students,” she says.

Still, she now knows that no child should go through what she went through in Arizona’s school system. 

Even though she was just a child, Zabdi says she also had to learn how to stand up for herself as a Mexican immigrant and how to protect her Latino migrant community. Her entire community suffered when Arizona’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed Senate Bill 1070 in 2010. They were scared of being deported, she says.

Known as the “show me your papers” law, SB1070 was considered the country’s strictest policy criminalizing immigrants, including provisions allowing state law enforcement during routine traffic stops to question anyone they suspected of being undocumented and spurring worries over racial profiling against Latinos regardless of citizenship.

Zabdi lived in fear under the law as a child. Fourteen years later, she says, those fears engrained at such a young age have stayed with her.

“I’m still traumatized,” she says. “I always ask God that a police officer doesn’t stop me.”

Today, Zabdi is studying business administration at Grand Canyon University (GCU) through an Aliento Arizona’s Future Fellowship that empowers students to develop their leadership skills. Aliento is a youth-led nonprofit that advocates for the rights of undocumented families.

Zabdi had to choose a career that does not require a state license to practice because Arizona’s current laws do not allow undocumented immigrants to obtain such certifications. She is still fighting for legal status.

Her dream of becoming a nurse is out of reach — for now. Still, she can study math and any other subjects she wants in college. Zabdi worries about Arizona’s Spanish-speaking Latino children who to this day are forced into English-only classes. 

She shares their trauma.

It helps, she says, to know that she is working to change Arizona school policies that harmed her as a student and that are still harming Latino immigrant children.

In a way, the political push-back against immigrants in Arizona hasn’t changed much from the time in which she grew up. Arizona’s top education official, Republican Superintendent Tom Horne is at the center of a legal battle targeting any school not using structured English immersion programs for students who are not proficient in English. In a 2023 lawsuit, Horne argued that some state public schools are using dual language programs in violation of Arizona’s Prop. 203 English-only laws. Those schools have countered that a 2019 law paved the way for some leeway in programs for educating students learning English.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper dismissed the lawsuit in March, ruling that Horne in his role as Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction has no standing to sue nor does the position hold authority over teaching models approved and overseen by the State Board of Education.

In an Arizona Department of Education statement following the court opinion, Horne vowed to continue his fight.

Less than two weeks after Cooper’s ruling, Horne backed a new lawsuit filed by his wife Carmen Chenal Horne on behalf of a Scottsdale parent against a Phoenix elementary school using a dual-language program. 

Zabdi Hernández with other Latina students during an “Education Day” training session. Credit: Aliento

Piña, the ASU psychology professor, said Arizona isn’t just failing students, the state’s communities and economy are missing out while other states are progressing because of bilingual education programs.

“In Florida, there are more than 100 different bilingual education programs, spread across the state,” he said. “Florida ranks third in the nation in terms of its ELL population size. Because academic, social and emotional strengths and challenges are closely interrelated, bridging gaps requires concerted interdisciplinary efforts. It is incumbent on policymakers to address the complex challenges faced by Latino children and adolescents in Arizona because it benefits everyone.”

Piña says Arizona could learn from other states investing in education, including in multilingual and multicultural programs.

“It is true that Arizona suffers from a shortage of school resources often attributed to budget constraints, inadequate funding for mental health services … and a lack of educational prioritization. Further, bilingual and bicultural professionals are scant,” he said. “Yet, it also is true that other communities are thriving in this area.”

He added that Florida’s English language learners population represent “a diverse array of linguistic backgrounds, speaking more than 243 different languages.”

“Consider the fact that most Lx children are equipped to translate and back-translate – in their heads — effectively and efficiently,” he said. “How might that scholastic gift positively impact economic growth in Arizona by way of international relations?”

Arizona leaders are underestimating the potential and brilliance of the state’s thousands of bilingual Latino students, he said.

Educators committed to the pain of Latino students

In 2008, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was carrying out his sweeping immigration raids in predominantly Latino immigrant communities. Silvia Rodríguez Vega was a 19-year-old college student at the Arizona State University majoring in political science, transborder Chicano/a and Latino/a Studies.

At the community center where Silvia taught a youth art class, she began planning a mural with her students, many of whom were Latino immigrants or children of Latino immigrants in Phoenix schools.

She saw in her students’ experiences the deepest fear and emotional ravages of deportation and family separation.

Silvia Rodríguez Vega, author of “Drawing Deportation,” at UC Santa Barbara. Credit: Julie Leopo for palabra

“At that time, there was not a single person in the school who could help these young people,” said Rodríguez Vega in Spanish, now a professor at the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research centers art and creative expression to explore how anti-immigration policies affect the lives of immigrant children.

The idea for a mural would transform into a 10-year effort to help Latino immigrant students express and manage their mental health using art therapy. 

“These children do not receive the help they deserve, the parents are afraid, some without documents, without understanding the language,” she said.

From 2008 to 2018, Rodríguez Vega asked students in Arizona and California living under anti-immigrant policies to document their feelings in drawings. She published the results in her 2023 book “Drawing Deportation: Art and Resistance among Immigrant Children.”

Hundreds of images expressed the pain of Latino children suffering in silence.

A drawing by one of the many immigrant children who participated in a youth art class taught by Silvia Rodríguez Vega. Credit: Julie Leopo for palabra

In the 2019 report “Words hurt: Political rhetoric, emotions/affect, and psychological well-being among Mexican-origin youth,” researchers from the University of California, Irvine examined “the effect of political rhetoric on the targets of that rhetoric.” 

The study conducted between 2016 and 2017 looked at 280 youth of Mexican descent who had at least one ancestor born in México or the participants themselves were born in México. 

The findings suggest that “political rhetoric matters for the targets of that rhetoric.” Further, young Latinos experiencing hate can begin to question “their belonging and legitimacy as full-fledged members of society.”

Inequities that can lead to educational and mental health disparities for Latino children, even those who are citizens, can start as early as pre-school.

“Citizen children don’t get access to learning opportunities — high quality child care, pre-school, for example — because their parents are living under the radar and have less information about such programs,” and are also more reluctant to manage the paperwork required for the programs, said Hirokazu Yoshikawa in an interview with the Russell Foundation about his 2011 book, “Immigrants Raising Citizens.” The book by the professor at NYU Steinhardt and co-director of the Global TIES for Children Center at NYU focused on a three-year study of 380 infants from Mexican, Dominican, Chinese and African American families.

If it is a community with financial resources, the schools “are going to have counselors, psychologists, therapies, art, sports — things that children in poor communities do not have,” Rodríguez Vega said.

“The lack of resources, the lack of people who care about these students is something intentional,” she said of disparities in Arizona schools. “If they valued all children, they would put those resources in schools where they are needed most.”

Silvia Rodríguez Vega shares a page from her book “Drawing Deportation” that features drawings created by immigrant students. Credit: Julie Leopo for palabra

An emotional refuge for Latino students

The walls of Jaxinta Shaffer’s office are decorated with images of waters flowing through an emerald forest, an oasis at her Phoenix high school.

In the center of the room, an armchair with soft cushions invites students to relax and share their worries. From books to sensory gadgets, Jaxinta has filled the room with objects that create a safe space where her students can feel free to express themselves.

This is the world of a social worker and school counselor in Arizona. Amidst the royal blue of the walls of Carl Hayden High School, she has created a haven.

Here, her students — many of whom are Latino immigrants or children of Latino immigrants — find solace.

“I really like doing play therapy,” Jaxinta says in Spanish. She says she is one of the few Spanish-speaking Latina social workers in the Phoenix Union High School District.

Jaxinta Shaffer, social worker and school counselor at Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix. Credit: Beatriz Limón

Jaxinta smiles. Her personality is no different from her office. Her Mexican roots stand out in her stories, decor, and the colorful accessories she chooses as armor and style.

Jaxinta understands the challenges of her students at Carl Hayden, where 94% of students are Latinos. It’s one of the 24 high schools with a total of more than 28,000 students, in the Phoenix Union High School District

  • The median household income of parents with children in the public school district is $56,884.
  • 25% of these families live with income below the poverty level and 30.6% are eligible for government assistance food programs.
  • 49.1% own their home and 10.4% have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to 2017-21 data from the National Center for Education Statistics
  • Latino families represent 59% of the district’s surrounding communities, compared with 25% of families who are White.

By comparison, in the Scottsdale Unified School District, which includes 30 schools and 22,000 K-12 students:

  • The median household income of parents with children in public school district is $141,994.
  • 7.9% of these families live with income below the poverty level and 5.8% are eligible for government assistance food programs.
  • 71% own their home and 65.8% have a bachelor’s degree or higher. 
  • Latino families represent 11% of the district’s surrounding communities, compared with 78% of families who are White.

Jaxinta sees her Latino students facing inequities of income and opportunity — challenges that students in more affluent Arizona school districts often do not face. Schools in lower-income communities struggle with resources, she says, and many “parents have two or three jobs” and still struggle to provide for their family.

She talks about the fears and challenges faced by her Latino migrant students.

 “A student told me that their father had been deported,” she says. “Another student told me that his house had burned down.”

Jaxinta’s black eyes seem to darken, as if a shadow passes over them.

She makes a comparison.

“I can’t imagine this being heard by a worker in the Scottsdale school district,” she says. “It is hard, and the students have to act like it’s a normal day.” 

Jaxinta’s gaze focuses on the wall, where the image of the stream remains fixed.

Students without counselors or therapists to meet emotional needs

Jaxinta was no different from her students. She emigrated to Arizona from México as a child and experienced the same fears and inequalities.

“I went to about 15 schools,” she says. She once attended a school for only three days.

Her experience as a migrant, the challenges and the lack of emotional health support, prompted her to become a clinical social worker and serve as a board member of the School Social Work Association of Arizona.

In between worrying about her kids in crisis, she finds moments of optimism. She says her family teases her for looking for the bright side but she has to keep thinking that way so she doesn’t give up.

Jaxinta with some of the trinkets she used to decorate her office to make it welcoming for students. Credit: Beatriz Limón

Arizona ranks near the bottom — 49 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia – in supporting youth with adequate mental health care, according to a 2022 Mental Health America report

Students in the state have higher prevalence of mental illness and lower rates of access to care. Of the Arizona youth who experienced a major depressive episode, 70%, or 67,000, did not receive any mental health treatment. That’s among the worst standards of care for young people in the U.S. and far above the national average of 60%, or 2,173,000 children.

Additionally, the 2022-2023 Student-to-School-Counselor Ratio analysis by the American School Counselor Association ranked Arizona as the worst state in the nation for having the fewest counselors: There were 1,698 school counselors for 1,132,223 students, or about 1 counselor for every 667 students. That’s nearly three times less than the association’s recommended ratio of at least 1 counselor for every 250 students.

Jaxinta says she is one of only two social workers at Carl Hayden. Both are bilingual. In a single day she can see as many as 10 students. Appointments start at 7:30 a.m. and she can see students as late as 5:30 p.m.

“It’s not therapy, but immediate crisis services,” she says. “The pain of losing their home in a fire will not go away, but I help them adapt to the changes.”

For Jaxinta, being Latina and an immigrant in the Arizona educational system affords her empathy and insights. It also can be overwhelming.

“I don’t have the power to change the laws,” she says.

She wonders: Maybe, if my student’s father hadn’t been deported, what would things be like today?

Through the hallways of Carl Hayden, hundreds of Mexican immigrants like Jaxinta are walking to their next class on campus.

She wants others to understand that how Arizonans choose to support Latino immigrant children today, and how schools are prioritizing resources to help these students manage trauma and their mental health today, will affect Arizona’s future tomorrow.

A colorful armchair at Jaxinta’s office where students are invited to relax and share their worries. Credit: Beatriz Limón

“All of these students will be adults, with their own children, their own families,” she says.

On a February day, as the desert sun shines through a tapestry of clouds, Zabdi is standing in front of the Arizona State Capitol building. The 23-year-old is one of about 150 students who organized and prepared to meet with state lawmakers as part of Aliento’s Education Day. 

They walked the halls where laws are made and made their case for investing in more college scholarships for undocumented students. For undocumented immigrants to pursue careers that require a state occupational license. For repealing Arizona’s English-only law and returning to a robust bilingual education system, as well as for increasing funding for mental health services.

Zabdi straightens her black blazer and looks toward the “Winged Victory” angel statue standing strident atop Arizona’s Capitol copper dome since 1901. She doesn’t face everything on her own anymore. She’s found a community.

Maybe one day, she will get to go to nursing school, like she dreamed of as a child. For now, Zabdi is focused on finishing college — and on changing Arizona laws.

Cover Photo: Photo by Beatriz Limón. Collage: Yunuen Bonaparte for palabra

Publisher’s Notes: In Arizona, a legacy of English-only education, systemic racism and xenophobic laws create a mental health crisis among Latino students was first published in Arizona Luminaria and palabra, and was republished with permission.

Part of LNN’s mission is to amplify the work of others in providing greater visibility and voice to Hispanic, Latino communities.

© 2024 All Rights Reserved.

Latino News Network