Posted on July 3, 2024

A Legacy of English-Only Education, Systemic Racism and Xenophobic Laws Create a Mental Health Crisis

Beatriz Limón, Arizona Luminaria, June 26, 2024

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 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In 2000, Arizona legislators repealed bilingual education for students like Zabdi by passing Proposition 203, the state’s English-only law.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.

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.


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 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.


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.


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.

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.


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