Arizona Data Unclear Whether Arizona Law Driving Illegal Immigrants Out of State

If one Phoenix school district is any gauge, Hispanics in Arizona appear to be leaving the state in anticipation of the tough-on-illegal-immigration law that goes into effect at the end of July.

It's not clear how many of them are illegal immigrants, but the exodus could be evidence that the law is achieving its goal of driving out illegals even before it takes effect next month.

There are no statewide statistics to prove a population shift, and accounts vary as to whether families are so concerned about the law they would pick up and leave.

Still, the superintendent of a Phoenix-area school district told that 95 students have left his system since the law was signed in late April.

Jeffrey Smith, superintendent of the Balsz Elementary School District, said mostly Hispanic students are leaving and that parents have told him they're leaving out of concern for the new law.

"They're concerned at what the law will do ... if they have anyone in their family that's illegal," he said. Enrollment went from 2,773 the day the law was signed to 2,678 this week.

The school district, which is 75 percent Hispanic, is the only district in Arizona where classes are still in session -- those schools have a rare 200-day school year, making it the only system where up-to-date comparisons of student enrollment can be made.

Elsewhere, the data was not as clear. The Arizona Republic reported last month that officials at another Phoenix-area district, Alhambra, were anticipating 200 to 300 students would leave their system over the summer because of the law.

But statewide enrollment figures were not up to date and did not reflect much movement at all in the student population.

Amy Rezzonico, spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Education, said the state would not have "tangible evidence" of any population change until October when the schools are required to report their enrollment numbers.

"We've been having some decline in enrollment for the past couple years for a variety of factors," she said.

The economy was one of those factors, she said. But some have also pointed to a 2007 law that cracked down on businesses that hire illegal immigrants. Department of Homeland Security statistics show that 100,000 illegal immigrants left the state between fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2009, coinciding with a nationwide drop in illegal populations.

Smith suggested the immigrant flight from Arizona could be even more significant this time around, since the new law's provisions are broad and could drive entire families to leave the state. Smith said he's hearing secondhand that the families are going to New Mexico.

"The statement is something like New Mexico is the way Arizona used to be," he said. "I heard one lady say she might go back to Mexico."

Smith, who declined to offer an opinion on the law, said the drop in enrollment concerns him.

"We develop a bond with our families and we care about them and they care about us," he said. "Our teachers and our staff are understandably concerned."

An official with the New Mexico Public Education Department said it was too early to tell whether its enrollment numbers were rising due to an influx from Arizona. School offices for the state of California and the city of Los Angeles also could not speak to whether enrollment was rising.

The controversial immigration law makes illegal immigration a crime and requires local law enforcement to try to determine the residency status of anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant provided they don't stop them for that reason alone. The law empowers them to turn over any confirmed illegal immigrants to federal custody.

Though the country's top immigration enforcement official earlier threatened not to process some of those immigrants, he said Thursday that Immigration and Customs Enforcement would continue to accept referrals from Arizona. John Morton said the decision would be made "on a case-by-case basis in light of our resources and in light of our priorities."

The law has drawn numerous complaints from Hispanic advocacy groups, Democratic lawmakers and even law enforcement officials who say the law will make it harder to do their jobs because Hispanics will be reluctant to report crimes.

But Arizona officials who backed the law are standing by it.

If Hispanics are leaving the state, it will take at least until late 2010 before the trend can be substantiated.

Paula Stuht, vice president of business development for the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said she's seen no sign of Hispanics leaving the Tucson area.

"I've heard nothing like that," she said. "We haven't heard from our members saying they're all leaving."

David Leibowitz, spokesman for Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, said because there's no "exit interview" for people leaving the state it's tough to tell what impact the law is having. But just as the spate of boycotts against Arizona may drive people suffering from its economic effects to leave, Leibowitz said concerns over the law itself could lead to the same thing. Gordon opposes the law.

"I think all of us in Phoenix have bumped into people, know people who are saying that (they are leaving)," he said. "Gut instinct -- I'm sure that it's had an impact."