After 30 Years, Plyler v. Doe Legacy Under Attack

After Alabama’s H.B. 56 went into effect last September, Foley Elementary School Principal Dr. William Lawrence watched several of his students run off their school buses in tears. They were afraid their parents would be deported by the time they got home from school, and they wouldn’t have a chance to say goodbye.

Parents were just as scared as their children. Some undocumented parents frantically tried to find American citizens to sign guardianship papers, which said the American family would keep their children if they were deported.

“People are so desperate, they’re willing to adopt their kids out,” said Victor Palafox, a student and community organizer from Birmingham, Ala. Palafox was born in Mexico City and is open about his status as an undocumented immigrant.

H.B. 56, which went into effect September 29, 2011, is the latest in a rash of increasingly strict anti-immigration laws. A similar law passed in Arizona, but H.B. 56 is unique in that it requires educators to check their students’ immigration status. In August, the U.S. Justice Department filed suit against Alabama over H.B. 56, claiming the law is in violation of the Constitution. In November, the National Education Association, the Alabama Education Association, and the National School Boards Association filed a joint amicus brief arguing that the law’s requirement that school personnel check students’ status will cause undocumented parents not to send their children to school and deprive them of their right to an education.

That right was established thirty years ago this month by the U.S. Supreme Court. In its landmark 1982 decision in Plyler v Doe, the Court ruled all children are entitled to a public education, regardless of citizenship or immigration status. Last week, the ACLU hosted a panel discussion to mark the 30th anniversary of Plyler, and to talk about how H.B. 56 contradicts the Court’s ruling.

“By effectively denying these children their right to a free public education, Alabama’s law strikes at the very heart of Plyler,” said Laura Murphy, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Legislative Office.

Since the bill went into effect, Lawrence said not a single child has enrolled at Foley without proper identification – even though the provision of H.B. 56 that required educators to check the immigration status of students was temporarily blocked shortly after it went into effect. Between the start of the new school year and February 2012, 13.4 percent of Alabama’s Hispanic schoolchildren have withdrawn from school.

“That makes me ask, where are they?” he said.

Lawrence said many of Foley’s Hispanic families fled Alabama after the law took effect. The first day, Foley Elementary had 134 absences, and 64 children withdrew from the school. But some families are now coming back after realizing they have nowhere else to go.

Although 98.7 percent of Alabama’s Hispanic K-12 public school students are U.S. citizens, the Department of Justice reports that many students have stayed home from or withdrew from school because they were scared their immigration status would be questioned, or that of their parents.

In May, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) signed into law revisions to HB 56, but left intact the requirement that schools check immigration status. That provision was blocked temporarily by a federal appeals court and is currently not in effect. If and when it is implemented, the names of students who fail to provide an American birth certificate when they enroll in classes will be placed on a list of people who do not have citizenship records. School employees would not call immigration officers themselves, but some still feel like it isn’t their place to question immigration status.

“We were hired to educate and love children, not serve as immigration officers,” Lawrence said at the ACLU discussion.

The Department of Justice also said school districts can ask for proof of residency within the district, but this proof can be almost anything with an address on it, including a lease, a utility bill or a phone bill.

In some districts, education administrators have asked students or their parents to give their social security numbers. The Department of Justice said this should be optional, and if one group is asked for identification information, all groups should be asked to supply the same information. In the case of H.B. 56, only Hispanic students were given information about the bill.

Some families may return to Alabama, but the state’s education system has changed permanently: students’ have lost some of their classmates, while others have lost the opportunity to learn without fear. Hispanic students have reported increased anxiety and hostility, and many of their grades have dropped.

“These children are always the brunt of these legislations,” Lawrence said. “Maybe if [legislators] would visit the classrooms and see the consequences, maybe that would make a difference.”