Alabama Immigration Law Leaves Schools Gripped by Uncertainty

Schools are scrambling to determine the impact of new law.

ByABC News
September 30, 2011, 1:19 PM

Oct. 2, 2011— -- Thursday Alabama became the first state in the nation to require public schools to check the immigration status of children when they enroll.

A judge's ruling Wednesday upheld several portions of Alabama's tough new immigration law, including the section on public-school enrollment.

Advocates of the law say it doesn't block enrollment in schools, but simply enables the state to track the number of illegal-immigrant students and calculate the costs associated with educating them.

Opponents argue that in the broader context of the immigration-enforcement law, the school provision will serve as a barrier for many families and end up denying innocent children their constitutional right to a public education.

Civil rights and immigrant advocacy groups are already planning their appeals, but in the meantime, parents and educators are trying to sort out exactly how the law will play out in schools.

"This will have an incredibly chilling effect on children and on parents," says Mary Bauer, legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the groups challenging the law in court. Coupled with other parts of the law, "it turns school officials and other government officials into, kind of, immigration agents, and that's a terrible message for kids and families."

For example, parts of the law require government officials to report illegal immigrants, says Ms. Bauer, so "there's a real risk that the law will be read to require schools to make reports of undocumented individuals," she says.

But state officials have decried what they call "fear-mongering" among critics.

What the Law does

Effective Thursday, schools are to check birth certificates only when a child is enrolling in an Alabama school for the first time. If officials determine the child isn't in the US lawfully or if a birth certificate is not presented, they then must ask the parent or guardian to provide other documentation or sign an affidavit about the citizenship or immigration status of the student. If that document doesn't arrive within 30 days, the school records that child as "enrolled without birth certificate" in the state data system.

The law doesn't require schools to report students' names when counting up the number who don't have legal documentation.

"We want to put a stop to the fear-mongering," said Larry Craven, Alabama's interim superintendent of Education, at a press conference Thursday afternoon. "No student should be denied enrollment for not providing a birth certificate."

That message does not seem to be getting through to many immigrant families, though.

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 Schools 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 Ms. Kelley, who suggests 10 percent of her students are immigrants, most of them Hispanic.

One grounds for challenging Section 28 will be the 1982 Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe. After Texas schools tried to block enrollment of illegal immigrants, or charge them tuition, the high court ruled that children residing in the US, whether legally or not, have a right to a free public elementary and secondary education.