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Alabama Immigration Law's School Provision Blocked

Last Friday, a federal appeals court panel issued a preliminary injunction on a provision of Alabama's immigration law that required schools to collect and report on students' immigration status. A provision that required aliens to carry documentation with them at all times was also blocked.

Responding to a request filed by the U.S. Department of Justice and a group of civil rights and advocacy organizations that enforcement of the law be stayed pending an appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit determined that challenges to those two provisions were likely to succeed, that the provisions could cause harm to plaintiffs, and that blocking them would not substantially harm public interest. The rest of the law will continue to be enforced. Interim State Superintendent Larry Craven issued a statement saying that schools would revert to enrollment procedures in place before September 29.

On September 29, Judge Sharon L. Blackwell had ruled that the provisions—and several others—could go into effect, and the state's schools saw an increase in absences and a distressed student population in the days that followed, as we reported two weeks ago. Alabama saw a second spike in Hispanic student absences last week as Hispanics around the state protested the law: 2,280 of the state's 34,000 Hispanic students were absent on September 30, two days after the ruling; 5,143 were absent on October 11, during the protests.

School officials around the state had been encouraging families to send their children to school by explaining that information collected by schools under the new law would not be used against them, and the rate of Hispanic school absenteeism declined after the initial spike: 1,226 students were absent on Monday of last week and 1,286 on Tuesday, according to Malissa Valdes, a spokeswoman for the Alabama State Department of Education. That's not dramatically more than the 1,172 absent the day before the judge's ruling. Valdes said the Department hoped that absenteeism would be back to the more "regular rate" seen Monday and Tuesday soon after the boycott ends.

The number of students who've withdrawn altogether is set to be reported today (October 17), as schools finish submitting their yearly data to the state, Valdes said. The number of students who officially withdrew may indicate a number of families who left the state altogether. This was, of course, part of the lawmakers' goal. The bill was created to make sure their state would not be a "safe harbor" for undocumented workers.

Now that the schools provision is no longer in effect, officials will see if absenteeism reduces further. But while the panel's ruling may relieve some school officials and civil rights advocates, Alabama's Hispanic families—many of which are a mix of undocumented and documented residents—continue to be affected by the law's other provisions, including one that allows police officers to detain anyone they reasonably suspect to be undocumented. After the first wave of fear about the purpose of data collection was addressed, local officials reported that other provisions were a major factor in keeping students out of school and causing some immigrants to leave the state. Undocumented parents worried about employment status or about being detained while their children—many of whom are U.S. citizens—were at school; all of these fears trickle down to students. This ruling clears schools from collecting immigration data, but schools and students will continue to be touched by the law's effect on other parts of students' lives.

The appeal panel's decision to block the schools provision matches the Supreme Court's ruling in Plyer v. Doe that collecting students' immigration status would have a "chilling effect" on their right to education. It was celebrated as a partial success by the Department of Justice and the group of plaintiffs who had filed for an injunction, but also by supporters of the law who were pleased only two provisions were blocked. One of the appeals court judges wrote that other provisions of the law, including the reasonable suspicion provision, should have been blocked. The constitutionality of the entire law is still being considered in the federal court in Alabama; the appeal has been expedited and hearings will begin within two months.

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