Published Online: October 7, 2011

Ala. Immigration Law Puts Squeeze on Schools

Mothers arrive to pick up their children from Flowers School in Montgomery, Ala. Hispanic students have started vanishing from Alabama public schools in the wake of a court ruling that upheld the state's tough new law cracking down on illegal immigration. Education officials say scores of immigrant families have withdrawn their children from classes or kept them home, afraid that sending the kids to school would draw attention from authorities.
—Dave Martin/AP

Alabama school districts are reeling from the impact of the state’s tough, new immigration law and a federal court ruling upholding a portion of the statute that requires schools to report on the immigration status of their students.

That requirement flies in the face of long-standing practice in Alabama and other states, as well as recent federal guidance that collecting such data would have a chilling effect on student enrollment and therefore would violate undocumented students’ right to public education as recognized by U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

And while Alabama administrators have taken steps to reassure families that children would not be denied admission, thousands of Hispanic students were reported absent in the days after the law went into effect Sept. 29. Local officials also worry that continued absences could hurt enrollment-based state education aid to schools and districts.

Eric Mackey, director of School Superintendents of Alabama, said Alabama educators are in a difficult position. “We want to make sure they’re following federal law ... and state law. We’ve been told there is a way to do both, but you have to walk a very creaky tightrope, so you don’t lean too far one way or the other.”

Alabama is unique in requiring schools to check students’ immigration status, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Texas, California, and Arizona—where a new immigration law last year raised concerns about potential indirect impacts on immigrant students—officials say schools are authorized to verify students’ residency, but not their immigration or citizenship status. Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, spokeswoman for the Texas Association of School Administrators, said collecting immigration data is “not the business of schools” in Texas.

Opposition Continues

National education, labor, and civil rights groups have been speaking out against the law.

Francisco Negron, general counsel of the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va., said in an interview that “it’s sad but not surprising” that students have been missing school since the law’s enactment. He said the “chilling effect” showed that Alabama’s law did not comply with the Supreme Court’s 1982 ruling in Plyler v. Doe. “We believe that Plyler is very clear and quite broad in its requirement that children are entitled to a free public education regardless of their immigration or citizenship status,” said Mr. Negron.

Raul González, legislative director at the National Council of La Raza in Washington, said, “For the judge to say that this provision is not intended to keep kids out of school is shocking to us because the totality of the bill was intended to drive immigrants out of the state.”

And on an Oct. 5 press call co-organized by NCLR and a number of labor and advocacy groups, Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Educational Association, a 3.2 million-member national union, said the law made it difficult for schools to be a “safe harbor” for children.

The Alabama requirement directly affecting schools is one part of a sweeping law enacted June 9 and now tangled up in federal court.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice and a coalition of advocacy groups both filed motions urging the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to block the Alabama law, the Associated Press reported. The Justice Department argued in its appeal that the state law could have dire diplomatic consequences and encourage discrimination.

Section 28 of the law requires schools to report how many undocumented students they enroll by checking enrollees’ birth certificates or, if a U.S. birth certificate is unavailable, through other documentation proving citizenship within 30 days. If documentation cannot be procured, the student is assumed to be an illegal immigrant.

Schools are to collect data only for students who enroll after Sept. 29, 2011. Alabama’s legislature says that the numbers are to be collected to understand how much money is spent on undocumented students each year.

The statute has been challenged by the U.S. Department of Justice, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and other groups. On Sept. 29, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon L. Blackburn, in Birmingham, Ala., blocked several provisions of the law, but she allowed others—including Section 28—to stand.

On Oct. 5, Judge Blackburn again upheld the law, saying that an ACLU briefRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader about a teacher questioning a student’s immigration status “was not based on enforcement of HB 56” but on misinterpretation of the law. The ACLU said it was planning an emergency appeal to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Atlanta.

An Immediate Effect

Alabama schools felt the law’s impact almost immediately: On the Monday after it went into effect, more than 2,200 of the state’s 34,000 Hispanic students were absent from school, the Alabama Department of Education said.

Educators moved quickly to reassure families. The Alabama Department of Education issued guidance to schools on checking students’ documentation. The state also issued a sample letter to families stating that “it will not be a problem” if documentation proving immigration status is not provided.

The state education department followed up with another release on Oct. 4, saying in English and Spanish that “we encourage all students to stay enrolled and attend school,” pointing to mandatory attendance laws and the facts that immigration data will not be collected for students who were already enrolled and is for statistical purposes only.

Local administrators are trying to send the same message. The day the law went into effect, Huntsville superintendent Casey Wardynski recorded a message in Spanish assuring the community that the school was only collecting data. Huntsville officials felt the video, which was posted online and aired on local Spanish-language television, was part of a successful outreach effort: 63 Hispanic students were absent on Oct 4, down from 207 the day after the judge’s initial ruling. The state’s rate of absenteeism among Hispanic students continued to rise as of the middle of this week, however.

Ripple Effect

Section 28 is not the only part of the law that has affected school attendance. Bill Lawrence, principal of Foley Elementary School, in Foley, Ala., on the Gulf Coast, said some parents were afraid they would be “picked up, detained without bond, and deported without having a chance to get home.” Families were making arrangements with citizen neighbors to care for children, just in case, and some Foley Elementary students came to school in tears.

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“Anytime your parent is under stress, not going to work, not going to the grocery store—it’s going to impact the child,” said Montgomery City Schools Superintendent Barbara Thompson. She spoke of a disrupted trust between families and schools.

Some of the law’s supporters recognize the effect it may have on schools. State Rep. Terri Collins, a Republican from Decatur, Ala., acknowledged elementary school students with legal immigration status may worry about the fate of parents who are undocumented. The law was passed “to get Alabamians back to work,” Rep. Collins said. “It may discourage immigrants from living in this area, which was the intent as well.”

As for the law’s long-term impact, “We’ll probably watch to see what happens over time,” Rep. Collins said. “When some of the business [immigration] regulations first came into effect, while they had several of their employees who were legal leave, eventually things settled down ... hopefully at the other end it will make us a stronger state.”

Vol. 31, Issue 07

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