Equity & Diversity

Court Rules That Ala. Can’t Check Students’ Immigration Status

By Lesli A. Maxwell & Mark Walsh — August 28, 2012 3 min read
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Educators in Alabama’s public schools cannot ask newly enrolling students about their immigration status after a federal appeals court in Atlanta ruled last week that the requirement in the state’s hotly contested immigration law is unconstitutional. State officials have announced no plans to appeal the ruling.

The school-related provision was one among several sections in Alabama’s immigration law, known as h.b. 56, that a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit unanimously blocked in a pair of decisions on the statute that was challenged by the Obama administration and an Alabama civil rights group. The court also issued a similar ruling on Georgia’s immigration law.

Considered to be the nation’s toughest law targeting undocumented immigrants, Alabama’s statute was the only one to include a provision that required educators to check on students’ citizenship status and keep records on the numbers of undocumented children enrolled.

The appellate court agreed with civil rights groups, which said school immigration checks are a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause, a more sweeping argument than the more limited reasoning put forth by the Obama administration that the provision was pre-empted by federal immigration law.

Limited Practical Impact

On a practical level, the ruling on the student-status provision doesn’t change much because its enforcement had already been put on hold by the 11th Circuit.

Melissa Valdes-Hubert, a spokeswoman for Alabama’s department of education, said schools this fall would continue to follow enrollment procedures that were in place before the immigration law took effect last September. Those procedures give educators flexibility as to the kinds of documents that students can show for proof of age when they enroll.

“We are very grateful that we won’t have to be put in the position of being immigration officers,” said William Lawrence, the principal of Foley Elementary School, in the immigrant-heavy community of Foley, Ala.

But Mr. Lawrence said he remains concerned about the lasting, chilling effects of the law, which at his school has brought to a standstill any new enrollments of students who are not U.S.-born. “We haven’t had a single student enroll with us since last fall who didn’t have a U.S. birth certificate. I’m worried that new immigrant kids are out there but they aren’t coming to school.”

Known as Section 28, the schools provision “imposes a substantial burden on the right of undocumented schoolchildren to receive an education,” U.S. Circuit Judge Charles R. Wilson wrote for the panel in the ruling in Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama v. Governor of Alabama. “Section 28 operates to place undocumented children, and their families, in an impossible dilemma: Either admit your unlawful status outright or concede it through silence.”

The panel blocked several other sections in the Alabama law, but did uphold a central provision that authorizes police to check the immigration status of people that they detain. That ruling falls in line with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this summer on the key part of Arizona’s similar immigration law, which orders police to demand proof of citizenship or legal immigration status from suspects they detain.

Moving On

A statement from Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, issued after the ruling indicated that the state would not file an appeal. “The core of Alabama’s immigration law remains that if you live or work in the state, you should do so legally,” he said. “It is time now to move past court battles and focus on enforcement of Alabama’s law.”

Under the Alabama law, pulic schools were required to check the birth certificates of enrolling students, and if those documents weren’t available, the child’s parent or guardian was to notify the school of the child’s citizenship status within 30 days. If no notice was received in that time frame, schools were to count that child as not having legal status to be in the United States. The court rejected the state’s contention that the provision treated all students equally because public schools are required to check documentation of all new students.

“Clearly, the law contemplates no interest in the birthplace of any child who is lawfully present, and the blanket requirement that all students show a birth certificate is simply a necessary means by which Section 28 forces unlawful present aliens to divulge their unlawful status,” Judge Wilson wrote.

He drew parallels to the tuition requirement for undocumented students who sought to enroll in Texas schools, which was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark 1982 Plyler v. Doe decision.

A version of this article appeared in the August 29, 2012 edition of Education Week as Ala. Blocked From Asking About Students’ Citizenship Status

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