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Absent from School in Alabama

Molly Lauterback,
Immigrants' Rights Project
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September 30, 2011

Two days ago, just after lunchtime, President Obama walked onto the stage at Benjamin Banneker High School in Washington D.C. to deliver his annual back-to-school speech. The 18-minute address sought to inspire all K-12 students to “test things out. Take risks. Try new things. Work hard.”

During the same time that the President was speaking to a packed auditorium, U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn in the Northern District of Alabama was handing down a decision that makes the idea of even attending public school a distant dream for many young children in Alabama.

Judge Blackburn delivered her opinions Wednesday in three parallel challenges to Alabama’s HB 56 brought by civil rights groups, including the ACLU, church leaders and the Department of Justice. In Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, et al., v. Bentley, et al., the case in which the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project is co-lead counsel, Judge Blackburn allowed the provision in HB 56 that requires public schools in Alabama to inquire into the immigration status of children and their parents to go into effect.

Just as President Obama told school children around the country to be “the best student that you can be,” many young students in Alabama knew they would not be given that option. Because of Section 28 in HB 56, many immigrant parents will be afraid to send their children to public school this year for fear of being deported.

Section 28 mandates that school officials in Alabama demand papers from all students in order to verify the immigration status not only of the student but of the parents as well. In fact, under HB 56, administrators are authorized, and even encouraged, to report this information to the federal government. The State’s purpose for collecting this information is vague; Alabama claims it seeks to show that “costs incurred by school districts for…children who are aliens not lawfully present in the United States can adversely affect the availability of public education resources…” What the State does not acknowledge is that the population of undocumented students in Alabama is, at most, 0.5 percent of the entire Alabama student body, making their purported (and unproven) effects upon public resources a minimal concern at most.

Regardless of the stated purpose, many parents in Alabama are afraid to give school officials sensitive immigration information, even if their children are not undocumented. A plaintiff in our case, the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, Inc. declared that “at virtually every single presentation, parents and other service providers have asked questions…[and] for information about…whether to enroll their children in school.” There are even reports that yesterday, a day after the President’s address, many parents kept their children home. In fact, at one elementary school, 19 out of the 233 Hispanic students withdrew and another 39 were absent.

The damage done to children who will not attend school because of their fear that they and their families will be deported simply for wanting to learn far outweighs Alabama’s desire to collect intrusive personal information about schoolchildren and their families. President Obama said, “I don’t want anyone listening today to think that once you’re done with high school, you’re done learning. Or that college isn’t for you. You have to start expecting big things for yourself right now.” Unfortunately, for many students in Alabama, those expectations may not be realized.

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