Arizona Teacher in Middle of Immigration Debate

March 23, 2011 - 8:44 AM

Phoenix (AP) - An Arizona substitute teacher finds himself in the middle of the state's polarizing immigration debate after he criticized some Hispanic students in a letter that's being defended by the state Senate president and criticized by other lawmakers who have questioned whether it was a hoax.

The letter by substitute teacher Tony Hill was read aloud Thursday as the state Senate considered one of five bills on illegal immigration. Hill wrote that a majority of eight-grade students whom he taught recently at an unnamed Glendale school refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance and declared that "We are Mexicans and Americans stole our land."

Hill went on to write: "I have found that (in) substitute teaching in these areas most of the Hispanic students do not want to be educated but rather (want to) be gang members and gangsters."

Democratic lawmakers have questioned the veracity of the letter, which was addressed to Senate President Russell Pearce and was circulated among Republican senators. Democrats called the writing offensive and questioned whether Hill was actually a substitute teacher.

Hill got his substitute teacher certificate from the state on Oct. 14, Arizona Department of Education spokesman Andrew LeFevre said Tuesday.

But officials with six regular public school districts that serve the Glendale area told The Associated Press that they had no record of an Anthony Hill or a Tony Hill working as a substitute teacher there in recent years. It's not known whether Hill taught at charter schools.

Hill didn't immediately return several phone calls and emails from The Associated Press on Tuesday.

"Until he is able to come out and tell us exactly where he taught, I am assuming it is false," said Democratic Sen. Steve Gallardo of Phoenix, who is named in the letter.

Hill wrote that the students' regular teacher left instructions for students to finish writing Gallardo to thank him for his position on immigrant rights. The letter also said most of the students mentioned in their writings to Gallardo that they were illegal immigrants and that white Americans were racists.

Gallardo said it's hard to believe Hill's contention that students refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance, and he called for apologies from Pearce for distributing the letter and from Republican Sen. Lori Klein for reading it during last week's debate on the immigration bills.

Several gasps could be heard in the Senate chamber after Klein finished, and Gallardo responded by defending children in two heavily Hispanic school districts where he's served as a school board member.

"They do not have dreams to be gang members," Gallardo told senators last week. "These are good kids."

The legislation, which dealt with health care, government benefits and everyday activities like driving, failed in Thursday's votes. On Tuesday, Gallardo said he believes Pearce distributed the letter in hopes of winning votes.

Pearce, who declined to speak with reporters after a legislative session Tuesday, later issued a statement saying he and Klein won't apologize.

"A teacher has a First Amendment right to express themselves, and we have an obligation to our citizens to keep them informed on what is happening in our schools," Pearce wrote, noting that Hill told him he stands by the letter.

Klein, through a spokesman, declined to comment on Tuesday.

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Associated Press writer Paul Davenport contributed to this report.