The latest attempt to legislate the national immigration debate has Alabama’s Hispanic families hiding their kids from the school districts.
Local and state officials in Alabama have begun pleading with immigrant families, asking them to continue sending their children to class in the wake of a court ruling that upheld a strict state law intended to crack down on illegal immigration.
On Thursday, the superintendent of Huntsville City Schools, Casey Wardynski, appeared on a Spanish-speaking TV show. In stilted Spanish, Wardynski insisted police would not be involved and urged families to stay put so that the state could compile statistics.
“In the case of this law, our students do not have anything to fear,” he said.
One section of the law requires elementary and secondary schools to determine the immigration status of incoming students. It was challenged by opponents who thought it would discourage parents from enrolling their children, even if it did not explicitly ban them from doing so.
Alabama’s law is one of the most far-reaching of any other state’s. It even outdoes Arizona’s SB 1070 by requiring state and local law enforcement to verify the immigration status of anyone detained in a routine traffic stop or arrest if there is a “reasonable suspicion” that the person is in the U.S. illegally.
On Wednesday, the Alabama court ruled on three suits brought against the law by a group of church leaders, civil rights groups and the federal government. The Obama administration began filing paperwork on Friday to appeal the court’s upholding of the law.
Republicans passed the Alabama bill after winning a supermajority in the state Legislature in 2010, the same year in which they pledged to crack down on illegal immigration. Although Alabama likely has a relatively small illegal immigrant population, it is increasing (even though it’s in Alabama, of all states).
There are no firm statistics yet, but last week’s attendance rates are a troubling sign of how much fear the law has put into Alabama’s Hispanic community.
In Montgomery County, more than 200 Hispanic students were absent the morning after Wednesday’s court ruling, according to an article by the Associated Press. Schools across the state reported sudden, significant drops in Hispanic attendance, and many officials have said students are withdrawing or have told teachers they plan to withdraw.
Alabama distributed a sample letter to schools to be sent to parents of new students. The letter tells parents that they should “Rest assured that it will not be a problem if you are unable or unwilling to provide either of the documents.” It also tells parents that the information gathered will only be used to compile statistics, not make arrests.
The law does not apply to students who were enrolled in school before Sept. 1. It also does not require proof of citizenship to enroll, though school systems are supposed to begin checking the status of first-time enrolling students.
Officials say neither students nor parents will be arrested and that the law does not ban anyone from attending school. They’re asking Hispanic families to keep children enrolled and attending.
The court’s ruling on Wednesday upholding most of Alabama’s law is a clear victory for anti-immigration supporters, but the reaction of Hispanic parents can’t be ignored.
The law uses fear to deter Alabama’s Hispanic population from education, even if officials try to claim otherwise. Public and secondary education is a protected constitutional right, but immigrant parents will fear being traced. The verbal equivalent of a pinky promise not to arrest anyone won’t soothe these fears.
Furthermore, here’s a fun fact: The law was sponsored by Republican state Sen. Scott Beason, who also advised Republicans in February to “empty the clip and do what has to be done” about illegal immigration.
Beason later said his comments were taken out of context and that he was only using an analogy, but the not-so-subtle message of violence against immigrants should make everyone uncomfortable. It’s not the immigrants who will “destroy a community,” like Beason claims they will. It’s legislators like Beason, and court decisions like Wednesday’s, that will.
— Kristina Bui is the copy chief for the Daily Wildcat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.