MotherCounty school threatened deportation
Orlando Sentinel
August 10, 2005

By Víctor Manuel Ramos

The Mexican family says staff at Glenridge Middle asked their immigration status; the school denies it.

María Ordoñez went to register her teenage daughter and son at an Orange County middle school, hoping they would get a first-rate education, but instead they were threatened with deportation.

Ordoñez, her husband and two children returned Tuesday to Glenridge Middle School, joined by advocacy group Latino Leadership and surrounded by a swarm of mostly Spanish-language media. School officials, however, said it was all a misunderstanding.

The children were referred to Lee Middle School, where they will start school today, because Glenridge lacks a bilingual program.

Still, the Ordoñezes and the advocacy group were not happy with the way they say the school -- straddling the higher-income neighborhoods of Baldwin Park and Winter Park -- treated the family last week. Even Gov. Jeb Bush chimed in, commenting that schools should not be concerned with immigration status.

"Saying this was a misunderstanding is an easy way to get out of an embarrassing situation," Latino Leadership President Marytza Sanz said.

The allegations come months after the state Department of Education faulted Orange County's public schools because of the way the district dealt with its immigrant students. After investigating 21 schools, the state this spring ordered the district to stop asking for immigrant-status documentation because it violates federal civil-rights laws.

Ordoñez said school officials asked her to provide proof of address, and, when she returned to the school Friday with appropriate documentation, staff had an officer from the Orlando Police Department talk to her about the family's immigration status.

"They put me in a room where they told me that they could deport me with the children right at that moment," Ordoñez said in Spanish. "They were treating me as if I had committed some sort of crime."

Ordoñez and her family moved here from Tampa in the past few weeks, after migrating from Mexico in December. Her husband came to Orlando to work in construction. The children were registering in American schools for the first time when they watched as a police officer summoned their mother away.

"We were very scared," said the 13-year-old boy, whose name was not disclosed by the parents. "I didn't think they would treat us this way, especially in this country."

School and district officials said a misinterpretation was to blame. They said the mother was referred to the school resource officer because Glenridge staff thought he could address her concerns about deportation.

Glenridge Principal Michele Erickson met with the parents and Sanz on Tuesday to explain what happened and register the children, but all agreed to send them to Lee Middle, which has a full-day bilingual program.

"We educate all children," Erickson said. "It was a misunderstanding."

The incident comes after the Florida Department of Education ordered Orange County Public Schools to treat their foreign-born students as they do everyone else, instead of setting a separate registration process. The state also told schools not to gather data on immigration status.

Orange schools spokesman Dylan Thomas said the district has made those changes, announced in March, and the school was simply asking for a proof of address, as it does from all children. This past school year, more than 10,500 foreign-born students -- a majority of them native Spanish-speakers -- were enrolled in Orange County programs that teach English as a second language.

Area Superintendent Ruth Pérez Christian said the school was addressing Ordoñez' questions. "My conclusion is that mom was nervous and she misinterpreted what was happening," Pérez Christian said.

Evelyn Rivera, president of the Parent Leadership Council, which represents families whose children are learning English in Orange County, said the mother's explanation made more sense to her.

"I would be nervous, too, if I were an illegal immigrant and I go to register my kids and you take me to the police," Rivera said. "These sensitivity issues have been raised over, over and over and over again. Evidently, in some schools this has not been taken seriously."

Víctor Manuel Ramos can be reached at or 407-420-6186.