Equity & Diversity

AL Educators Anxious as AZ Immigration Law Goes Before High Court

By Lesli A. Maxwell — April 24, 2012 2 min read
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The Supreme Court tomorrow will hear oral arguments in the federal government’s challenge of the Arizona law that cracks down on undocumented immigrants from the Southwestern state.

Arizona’s law, among other things, empowers local police to check the legal status of people they stop if they suspect that they are in the United States illegally. The law also cracks down on immigrants without work permits who seek out employment. Much of the law has been on hold in the wake of federal court rulings that it interferes with federal immigration laws.

But that didn’t stop other states—namely, Alabama—from enacting similar, and, in some ways, even tougher laws.

Alabama’s law is also under court challenge by the Obama administration and provisions of that law that required school principals to check on the immigration status of enrolling students and report that data to the state department of education have been suspended for the time being. Arizona’s law does not contain similar school provisions.

Still, educators I spent time with in southern Alabama last week will be keeping a close eye on the court proceedings this week, knowing that the stakes are extremely high for the large number of immigrant families they serve in and around Foley, Ala., a small community near the resort town of Gulf Shores.

Like many places in Alabama with large immigrant populations, educators in Foley have been put squarely in the middle of the state’s controversial immigration law and have seen close up its impact on children. Since last fall when much of the law first took effect, they have dealt with families leaving or being split up, and have been trying to keep their students focused on their schooling despite all the uncertainty in their lives. Within many families, you find a mix of legal statuses. One mother I interviewed is undocumented, her husband has a recently expired work visa, and all three of her children are U.S. citizens who were born in Alabama.

Carmen Potts, a bilingual ESL teacher at Foley Elementary School, describes how nearly every day, a student will express fear over the law in Alabama in a startling way. One little boy told her recently that his biggest fear is that “the police will put me in a little jail for little kids because I have no papers.”

To help her students confront and express those fears, Ms. Potts has turned the Alabama law into her main teaching tool this year. She has been teaching her students about cause and effect and asking them to write and speak about why they think the law was passed and what its effects have been.

Ms. Potts, in an email to me after my visit to Foley, wrote that “no matter how young people might think children are, or that they don’t know any better, this is not true! They do know, feel, and suffer sometimes even more than adults, because they cannot see long-term solutions and hope the way we do.”

I’ll have a fuller story about the impacts of the immigration law on the Foley community in a special report coming out in June.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.