ARTICLE

Alabama Immigration Law Tough on Students

Now that a federal judge has upheld most of Alabama’s new anti-immigration law, supporters can crow that the state is “No. 1” –at least when it comes to cracking down on immigrants. But what does that crackdown mean, practically speaking?

Now that a federal judge has upheld most of Alabama’s new anti-immigration law, supporters can crow that the state is "No. 1" –at least when it comes to cracking down on immigrants. But what does that crackdown mean, practically speaking?

It means this:

Many of the 223 Hispanic students at Foley (Ala.) Elementary came to school Thursday crying and afraid, said Principal Bill Lawrence. 

Nineteen of them withdrew, and another 39 were absent, Lawrence said, the day after a federal judge upheld much of Alabama’s strict new immigration law, which authorizes law enforcement to detain people suspected of not being U.S. citizens and requires schools to ask new enrollees for a copy of their birth certificate. 

Even more of the students—who are U.S. citizens by birth, but their parents may not be—were expected to leave the state over the weekend, Lawrence said.  

"It’s been a challenging day, an emotional day. My children have been in tears today. They’re afraid," he said. "We have been in crisis-management mode, trying to help our children get over this." 

And it means this:

Some illegal-immigrant parents whose children are citizens have already said they plan to leave, making comments like, “we don’t want them to take away our children,” says Dawn DuPree Kelley, longtime principal of Greenwood Elementary School in the Jefferson County School System. 

“We’ve been having to troubleshoot today to offer encouragement ... and let them know that the best place is to have their child in school – that’s their federal right [and] they are safe in school,” says Dr. Kelley, who suggests 10 percent of her students are immigrants, most of them Hispanic. 

According to The New York Times, “Statewide, 1,988 Hispanic students were absent on Friday, about 5 percent of the entire Hispanic population of the school system.”

Technically, HB 56 does not turn public schools officials into immigration police. It merely requires public schools to collect information on the citizenship of new students and their parents at enrollment. That information is handed over to the state only in the form of statistics—no names are provided. And legally, Alabama can’t do much more than that thanks to the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe.

But psychologically, HB 56 muddies the waters about the education guarantees for immigrants enshrined in Plyler. That became obvious when a Montgomery teacher took it upon herself to ask a fourth-grader if she was a legal resident—and to later ask about the immigration status of the girl’s parents.

Perhaps the teacher was confused, thinking that she had a role in enforcing the law. If so, she wouldn’t be alone. Or perhaps she doesn’t like undocumented immigrants and saw the law as an opening to heighten their sense of panic. If so, she wouldn’t be alone there either. (Anyone who sees discrimination tied to the Alabama immigration law should call this hotline: 1-800-982-1620.)

Most teachers understand that the most important thing they can do now is to reassure students and their parents with the most accurate information possible. And they know there is a respectful conversation that needs to take place with colleagues and parents who view the law positively. It can start with the question, “What do you think happens to these kids now?”

Several legal groups, including the Southern Poverty Law Center—our parent organization—are appealing the Alabama law. In the meantime, it’s fair to say that anyone who can look on this tragedy in the making and say “good” has a twisted view of what it means to be No. 1.

Price is managing editor of Teaching Tolerance.

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