Alabama Law Drives Children Out of Public Schools

What happens when school personnel are ordered to ask about students’ immigration status?

Alabama is carrying out that experiment right now, and the first results are in: Children don’t come to school.

Wednesday, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel spoke out against the law that requires the school personnel who enroll students to ask about their citizenship or immigration status when they enroll.

“Our schools provide a crucial safe harbor for all children,” said Van Roekel.  “This law is having a chilling effect – children are literally vanishing from Alabama classrooms. School employees are hired to help students learn, not check their immigration status. What students need most to succeed is an education and this law gets in the way of that.”

The provision requiring school officials who enroll students to ask about their citizenship or immigration status was one of those that federal District Court Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn allowed to go into effect last week, although she blocked other parts of the law.

Educators immediately saw attendance drop for immigrant students, even though the law only applies to new students, not those who are already enrolled. Immigrant parents without papers apparently are afraid to take the risk.

Van Roekel told a press conference about a kindergarten teacher who has lost four of 19 students since the decision came down. “She said she has never experienced the kind of heartbreak she is facing. Her students don’t know what’s going on. Almost 85 percent of the students in her school are Hispanic and there is an atmosphere of fear,” he said.
“Some of the parents of her students have talked with her about leaving their children with relatives when they move out of state so the children can stay in school. Most of her students were born here. The parents are in tears. Her students are crying. Just yesterday, she had a parent-teacher conference and the parent called and canceled – the parent told her she was too afraid to come to the school for fear of her being apprehended. She believes by this time next year her community will be a ghost town.”

The law requires schools to report the number of students whose parents have not provided documents confirming their status. It does not require schools to report names. But according to media reports, immigrant rights groups are being flooded with calls from fearful parents, along with pregnant women afraid to go to the hospital and crime victims afraid to call the police—all affected by the new law.

The U.S. Department of Justice is appealing the law in an effort to block the school mandate and other provisions.

“We applaud the U.S. Department of Justice for its efforts to curb this harmful law,” said Van Roekel. “Our public schools were created with the promise that all students who walk through their doors would be educated – regardless of the child’s national origin or the economic status of their parents.”

The U.S. Supreme Court previously recognized the right of children to be educated regardless of their immigration status in Plyler v. Doe, (1982). NEA filed an amicus brief in that case.

NEA and the Alabama Education Association also filed an amicus brief challenging the new Alabama law. The brief said “the purpose and effect of [the law] is to use fear and intimidation to drive undocumented immigrants and their children out of the state of Alabama.”

“The message ‘You’re not welcome here’ harks back to another period in history when children were denied the right to an education – a period America’s students should never have to revisit,” said Van Roekel.

“Nobody wins when a state law pushes students into the shadows,” he said.