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New Alabama Law Requires Schools to Ask Immigration Status

Alabama's governor Robert Bentley, a Republican, signed a law yesterday that requires schools to determine the immigration status of students. That provision is embedded in a 71-page law aimed at discouraging the presence of undocumented immigrants in Alabama.

Similar to a controversial Arizona law signed by Republican Governor Jan Brewer last year, the Alabama law requires police officers to make "a reasonable attempt" to determine the immigration status of any person while making a "lawful stop, detention, or arrest." (You can find the law, SB56, on the web site of the Alabama legislature.)

"The State of Alabama finds that illegal immigration is causing economic hardship and lawlessness in this state and that illegal immigration is encouraged when public agencies within this state provide public benefits without verifying immigration status," the law says.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Alabama put out a press release yesterday saying they will join with other civil rights groups to challenge the constitutionality of the new law in court.

The new law doesn't bar children who are undocumented from receiving free primary and secondary schooling. But it makes no mention of the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Plyler v. Doe, that gave them that right. The law requires the Alabama Department of Education to send the state legislature a report each year spelling out the numbers of students in primary and secondary schools who are believed to be undocumented. That report must also analyze and itemize the cost to the state of providing instruction, computers, textbooks, meals, extracurricular activities, and other support to undocumented students.

The law's requirement for schools to determine the immigration status of students goes against the advice that civil rights lawyers have given to schools for years, in interpreting the Plyler v. Doe ruling. Civil rights lawyers have told educators not to inquire about the immigration status of students because it might provide a chilling effect on their seeking an education.

Roger Rice, the executive director of the Somerville, Mass.-based Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy Inc., and a civil rights lawyer said in an email sent to me today that the law "goes way too far" and he hopes the U.S. federal government will take a stand against it.

Rice said he believes this is the first time such a law has been signed in a state. "Apparently Alabama's current governor is returning to the historical state playbook of standing in the schoolhouse door to try to bar minority children from being educated," he said.

The U.S. Department of Education recently reminded school districts of their obligation to enroll children regardless of immigration status. A letter released May 6 by the department said that schools may ask for U.S. birth certificates to establish if the child meets age requirements for enrollment but can't refuse to enroll a child who doesn't have such a birth certificate.

Schools may also ask for children's Social Security numbers to be used as student identifiers, the letter said. But they may not deny enrollment if parents refuse to provide a child's Social Security number, federal education officials said.

Joe Morton, Alabama's chief state school officer, said in a statement that the Alabama Department of Education will release guidance to schools on how to respond to SB 56 by September 1, when the provision regarding schools is scheduled to go into effect. He noted that by Sept. 1, schools in Alabama will have enrolled almost all children for the 2011-12 school year because the school year starts in August.


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