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Teachers' Unions Say Ala. Immigration Law Unfair, Intrusive

The leaders of the country's two largest teachers' unions today joined Hispanic advocacy groups in denouncing an Alabama law that requires schools to check students' citizenship status upon enrollment.

Dennis Van Roekel, of the National Education Association, and Randi Weingarten, of the American Federation of Teachers, described the law as a misguided policy that would have the effect of turning school employees, including teachers, including to immigration-enforcement officials.

"Teachers should never be put in this position," AFT President Weingarten said on a call with the media. "They are safety nets, not snitches."

Van Roekel agreed, saying he is hearing reports from teachers in Alabama that the law has provoked an "atmosphere of fear" in schools, and had made parents afraid to enroll their students for fear of alerting authorities to families' immigration status.

"We firmly believe our schools should be a safe harbor for all of our children," the NEA president said, but the law is pushing immigrant families "into the shadows of society."

Weingarten called the policy "a crippling blow to the hopes and dreams of Alabama's youngest students."

The two union chiefs took part in a phone call with representatives of the National Council of La Raza, the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Alabama's law, approved earlier this year, requires public schools to check the citizenship status of new students. Specifically, it mandates that they "determine whether the student enrolling in public school was born outside the jurisdiction of the United States or is the child of an alien not lawfully present in the United States." The law does not bar children who are undocumented from receiving free primary and secondary schooling.

Students or their parents must show an original birth certificate at the time of enrolling in schools. For those who can't present proper documentation, schools are required to assume they are "unlawfully present" in this country. The measure requires schools to keep statistics about the numbers of those students.

The law has been widely criticized by civil rights' groups, who say it stigmatizes and discriminates against Latinos. Backers of the measure, including Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, dispute that notion, and argue that the measure (which affects immigration policies outside of schools) will help keep more jobs open for legal residents and reduce the state's costs in providing services.

Late last month, a federal judge blocked portions of the law, but upheld its requirements that schools check on students' immigration status. The Obama administration had challenged the legality of the law.

Reports are increasing of Latino students not showing up to school since the judge's decision, said Sam Brooke, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. That decline is almost certain to undermine schools' budgets.

"As enrollment goes down, they will be losing money," Brooke said.

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