As students in Alabama began a new school year in August, many returned to the same classrooms, cafeterias, and hallways they left in May—yet behind the scenes, their schools have become a battleground, the latest in a national debate over immigration policy. Alabama’s new immigration law, which was signed last June and is currently on hold pending three federal court cases against it, places harsh restrictions on almost all aspects of an undocumented resident’s life—from housing and transportation to employment and education.
The new legislation, House Bill 56 (H.B. 56), has sparked fierce debate across Alabama, yet its supporters and critics agree on one point: it is more radical than contentious laws passed in other states, especially when it comes to its impact on schools. One critical provision directly addresses Alabama’s schools, requiring school staff to verify each student’s immigration status during enrollment and report these numbers to the state department of education yearly. School administrators and teachers are concerned that this provision will cause immigrant parents to pull children from school, further stress a cash-strapped school system, and burden educators and administrators with the task of enforcing immigration laws.
In response to these and other concerns, the U.S. Department of Justice, religious leaders, and a host of organizations and individuals filed three lawsuits against the state, asking the court to strike down portions of H.B. 56 as unconstitutional and in conflict with federal law. In response, a federal judge on August 28 put a temporary hold on the new legislation, which was set to go into effect September 1. The judge will issue a ruling by September 28.
Because of the law’s effect on students and educators, the National Education Association and the Alabama Education Association (AEA) filed a friend of the court brief asking the federal court declare H.B. 56 unconstitutional.
“All students are entitled to a quality public education as ruled by the Supreme Court decades ago,” said NEA General Counsel Alice O’Brien. “The inevitable effect and clear purpose of this law is to drive immigrant students out of Alabama schools. And it is clear that this harmful venture is shortsighted and misguided.”
For the past 30 years, the U.S. Department of Education has instructed school districts to follow the 1982 Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe, in which the Court declared it unconstitutional to deny undocumented students a public education. Based on Plyler, NEA and AEA argue in their brief that, by making undocumented parents afraid to register their children for classes, H.B. 56 will do just that.
“If we’re asking questions students about students’ immigration status as they enroll in school, we’re chilling the right those students have to equal protection under the law,” said AEA attorney Cecil Gardner. “We are, not very subtly, making it known that we are asking these questions and that you—illegal immigrant parents—might be risking prosecution and deportation if you send your child to school.”
Alabama’s new school year began before H.B. 56 could go into effect, so schools have not yet enacted new registration policies. Although enrollment procedures have not changed, Karen Freeman, an English Learners (EL) teacher at Ashville Elementary School, has spoken to many students who are waiting to register until the court case against H.B. 56 is decided.
“A lot of my students haven’t even enrolled yet, and I’ve never had that happen,” she said.
The stress of this uncertainty has trickled down from parents and educators to students, who wonder if they will be separated from parents, siblings, or other relatives. Freeman remembers one student who is the only one of her siblings without United States citizenship.
“She asked me ‘when will we know if all the Mexicans have to leave?’” said Freeman. “It was heartbreaking. It’s an awful thing for a child to think about.”
With H.B. 56 under consideration by a federal court, these students and parents—and educators like Freeman—wait to see which provisions of the law, if any, will be struck down. At Crossville Elementary, a northeastern Alabama school with a 65 percent Hispanic population, Principal Ed Burke worries about his school’s ability to comply if the law is upheld.
“We don’t have the personnel to do all the work that is needed to find out which parents are legal,” he said. “That’s my biggest concern—putting it off on the schools to police illegal immigration. I don’t think school is the place to do that; we don’t have the resources.”
As school administrators are drawn into immigration enforcement, another provision of the law requires employees of the state of Alabama—including educators and support professionals in public schools—to report violations of H.B. 56. If a student comes to her teacher or counselor with fears for an undocumented family member who has violated H.B. 56, the educator is compelled to report the information, said AEA attorney Cecil Gardner.
“We think this kind of work is inappropriate for a classroom teacher,” Gardner said. “What they should be doing is caring for young students, not worrying about whether if they do that they are risking criminal prosecution.”
With the new law on hold until the end of September, students, parents, and educators remain in legal limbo, waiting to see how H.B. 56 will affect them and how the laws governing public education in Alabama could change. For now, educators like Ed Burke hope for a swift court decision, and try to get on with the day-to-day demands of a new school year.
“We’re just trying to take care of the kids,” he said. “We don’t care what color they are, we just want to educate them—that’s our job.”