(MintPress)–A letter sent on behalf of the Department of Justice (DOJ) to the Alabama State Department of Education expresses concern over the lasting impact an immigration law similar to Arizona’s challenged SB 1070 could have on children within the school system, citing an increase in absences among Hispanic students and an overall atmosphere of tension […]
(MintPress)–A letter sent on behalf of the Department of Justice (DOJ) to the Alabama State Department of Education expresses concern over the lasting impact an immigration law similar to Arizona’s challenged SB 1070 could have on children within the school system, citing an increase in absences among Hispanic students and an overall atmosphere of tension and bullying.
A portion of HB 56 initially passed in 2011 allowed schools to check the immigration status of students. A U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued an injunction on that part of the law, which went into effect Oct. 14, 2011 — two months after the law was implemented. The DOJ claims that, during and after that timeframe, Alabama Hispanic students suffered mentally and academically.
The DOJ previously requested the Department of Education provide data relating to enrollment, including absences and withdrawals. On April 4, the DOJ received the information, at which point they began to analyze the data and pair it with interviews compiled from meetings with school children, teachers, administrators and parents, revealing that outside tension within Alabama society was also present in schools.
The DOJ concluded that absence rates among Hispanic students rose three-fold in the weeks following the implementation of the law, which was signed into law on June 9, but put into effect on Sept. 29.
The study was implemented on behalf of the DOJ in accordance with its mission to assure civil rights regarding education were being protected, according to the letter. While the study is not complete, the DOJ indicates the situation is not heading in the right direction.
Reading, writing and anxiety
Based on interviews with Alabama teachers, parents and students, Hispanic children are caught in the mix of a debate over how to control illegal immigration in the state of Alabama. While HB 56 initially passed, its injunction highlights a tension among those who feel that more stringent actions are necessary to handle undocumented workers, and those who feel such measures have gone too far. Proponents of the law cite government assistance for undocumented workers as one of the main reason for enforcement.
When students enter the classroom, they’re taking the state’s environment with them, according to the DOJ. The letter states a decline in overall performance among Hispanic students, presumably caused by stress associated with questions regarding immigration status, bullying from non-Hispanic students and an environment of division and hostility within the classrooms.
“Hispanic children reported increased anxiety and diminished concentration in school, deteriorating grades, and increased hostility, bullying and intimidation,” the letter states.
Students concerned about the illegal status of their parents or other family members have reported feeling anxiety over whether they will be asked questions that would put them in a compromised position, despite the fact that the law no longer allows such questions to be asked of children.
The DOJ cites potential violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically title 4 and title 6, which ensure the U.S. Department of Education provide assistance to school districts in order to bring about desegregation within American schools, and that such funding is not used in a way that encourages or contributes to discrimination. It also points to possible breaks from the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, which was enacted by Congress in order to guarantee all children have the same rights to public education.
The DOJ argues that interviews with parents, teachers and students indicated an environment that did not provide opportunities guaranteed under the law for children of all races, most notably alienating Hispanic students.
“Based on our investigation to date, including our initial analysis of the data that the Alabama State Department of Education has provided, it appears that H.B. 56 has had significant and measurable impacts on Alabama’s schoolchildren, impacts that have weighed most heavily on Hispanic and English language learners (ELL),” U.S. Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez states in the letter.
In the weeks following the implementation of the law, schools reported tripled absences, notably among Hispanic and ELL students. Although such high rates did drop in the following weeks, the DOJ concluded it did have “lasting consequences in the education context.” Following the implementation of the law — From September, 2011 through February, 2012 — 13.4 percent of Hispanic children were withdrawn from school. In the same study, the DOJ concludes that 98.7 percent of Alabama students are U.S. citizens.
The DOJ reports that such numbers are due to Hispanic students who retreated from school in fear they would be questioned about their own or their family’s immigration status
Perez notes that, under the precedent set in the 1982 court case Plyler vs. Doe, the education system cannot mandate students verify documentation, as those students are also held to laws that all children must be enrolled in school. In the letter, the DOJ highlights specific concerns related to notices given to Hispanic students to attend assemblies relating to HB 56 laws.
In response to a request made by Mint Press, the Alabama Department of Education provided a statement regarding the law, in which it states the Department of Education was directed to ask all students enrolling after Sept. 1 to provide identification through a birth certificate, but were not asked to turn away those who were not able to provide such documentation. Students were entered into the database system as either “enrolled with birth certificate” or “enrolled without a birth certificate.” The data was collected and reported to the state, although specific names were not given.
“Any negative effect on student attendance or withdrawal was minimized by applying this process to all students and only those enrolling after Sept. 1, 2011, which was several weeks after the official beginning of the school year,” the Department of Education stated.
What will happen to HB 56?
Alabama’s HB 56 law was challenged almost immediately by the Obama Administration, which cited a violation of the Supremacy Clause, which states the federal government has ultimate authority over immigration issues.
A U.S. District Court of Appeals ruled in September to block portions of the bill, including asking students to prove legal status before enrollment — a portion of the law that would not have denied students time in the classroom, but would have exposed their illegal status.
However, not all components of the bill were axed. Similar to Arizona, the Alabama bill created an avenue for police to question those they had reason to believe could be in the country illegally — a provision being challenged in Arizona by the Obama Administration. The case was recently heard in the Supreme Court, but a decision is not likely until this summer.
Legislation has made it through the Alabama House that would tweak HB 56 in order to appease concerns brought up by the federal government across the nation.
Citing a need to stop undocumented workers from receiving government-funded benefits, states have begun to implement their own forms of immigration legislation. At least 32 states have considered immigration reform bills — 26 have filed and 21 are still pending, according to The National Conference of State Legislatures. Six bills have been signed into law. Any decision made by the Supreme Court will have an impact on laws currently on the books, leaving those states with laws in place interested in the outcome.
Even as the constitutionality of such bills are being debated, the DOJ indicates in its letter that the battle over how to handle immigration has already resulted in lasting impacts in schools — and, consequently, the next generation. The letter concludes with Perez requesting an opportunity to discuss concerns with the Alabama Department of Education.