Hispanics leave school in face of Alabama's tough immigration law

Alabama's new immigration law requires public schools to document the legal status of children upon enrollment. As a result, many immigrant families are withdrawing their children from school.

Jay Reeves/AP
In this Aug. 17 photo, students sit in the gym at the elementary school in Crossville, Ala. Education officials say scores of immigrant families have withdrawn their children from classes or kept them home this week, afraid that sending the kids to school would draw attention from authorities.

Hispanic students did not show up for school in noticeable numbers Thursday and Friday in Alabama following a federal judge’s ruling Wednesday that upheld several provisions of a harsh state law restricting illegal immigration in the state.

The absence of Hispanic students has many education leaders worried that immigrant families are withdrawing their children from school to prevent state authorities from looking into their legal status.

The Pew Hispanic Center says the number of illegal immigrants in Alabama rose 380 percent between 2000-2010, from 25,000 to 120,000, and that illegals represent 2.5 percent of the total state population today.

According to the Associated Press, students in several districts with large immigrant enrollments experienced a drop in attendance by Hispanic students. While numbers are not yet available statewide, the shift was noticeable enough for Casey Wardynski, the public school superintendent of Huntsville, to make an appearance on local Spanish-language television Thursday to explain the new state law and assure parents they “do not have anything to fear.”

The video was uploaded to YouTube and is linked on the district’s website. It is scheduled to run several times each day until Oct. 9.

The anxiety over the enrollment issue is resulting from a ruling by US District Judge Sharon Blackburn who ruled Wednesday that a bill signed into law has several components that pass federal scrutiny, including a provision that requires the state’s public schools to require documentation that shows the legal status of children upon enrollment.

Public school officials are trying to dissuade a mass exodus by telling parents that they will track the legal status of their children only to gather statistical information and that they are not allowed, for privacy reasons, to identify students who may be living in the country illegally.

Paul Horowitz, a constitutional law expert at the University of Alabama’s law school in Tuscaloosa, says the data collection nature of the law “is fairly clever” in circumventing a federal law that prohibits discrimination in public school enrollment and that the state may be using the new provision “as a way to set up a longer-term factual basis for challenging the requirement that children of illegal immigrants be publically schooled.”

According to the new law, each school district in Alabama will now be required to turn in its data to the state’s education department, which will then provide the legislature an annual report showing enrollment numbers and an analysis on how much is spent each year teaching illegal immigrants.

The number of students who failed to show up in school varied, from 200 in Huntsville to 107 in Albertville. Absent students were particularly high in counties with high Hispanic populations.

School administrators said it was their duty to educate their student population, no matter their legal status.

“We are ready to educate these kids. We are held accountable for them,” Mr. Wardynski told the Huntsville Times.

The Obama administration announced Friday it will appeal Judge Blackburn’s ruling to prevent the immigration law from going forward. It filed a motion to stay the order. Blackburn gave the state until Monday to file a response to the request.

Her motion upheld a controversial provision that allows law enforcement officials to detail people suspected of being in the US illegally if they fail to produce proper documentation as well as two others: one that makes it a misdemeanor for any illegal immigrant to have fake citizenship documents and another that requires proof of citizenship when applying for a driver’s license or motor vehicle license plate.

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