“It is having an impact on children. Many have come to school fearful, many have cried. A lot don’t understand why they are having to leave since they were born in the U.S.”
– Lizzette Farsinejad, Montgomery Public School education specialist.
Alabama’s new immigration law is already profoundly affecting educational institutions, administrators, teachers, and students in the state. Under Section 28 of the law, every public elementary and secondary school in the state is required to document and report the immigration status of every student in the school. Schools are also required to report on the immigration status of every child’s parents.
The courts temporarily halted this section of Alabama’s law. But that hasn’t stopped it from wrecking havoc on schools around the state.
Under Alabama’s H.B. 56:
1. Children are afraid to come to school. Thousands of students in Alabama stopped showing up for school in the days after a court ruling allowing the new law to go into effect. Attendance is still dropping even though the courts halted the schools provision of the law. As Sally Howell, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, stated, “We’re concerned about the chilling effect on attendance and registration of students that we are required by law to serve.”
2. The state is losing a potential pool of educated citizens. A 1982 Supreme Court ruling, Plyler v. Doe, provided that undocumented kids cannot be denied education. Vi Parramore, president of the Jefferson County American Federation of Teachers, said, “The promise of public schools is to educate all children who walk through their doors. What do we possibly hope to accomplish by scaring children away from the classroom?”
3. Schools will be hurt financially. Loss of enrollment, as well as the cost of compliance with the new unfunded mandate noted above, will hurt Alabama schools financially. Brandi Gholston, Tharptown Elementary guidance counselor, stated “We could get into the emotional aspects of this all day long, but looking just at numbers, we stand to lose a lot of revenue.”
4. Alabama’s schools already face significant fiscal challenges with poor student results. State aid for public education in Alabama has steeply declined in the past few years, decimating school finances. This is in a state that already ranks 33 out of 50 in overall per-pupil funding. The lack of funding affects student outcomes: In 2011, for example, the state received a D+ for its K-12 education achievement from the Quality Counts report, with only six states and the District of Columbia faring worse. Student education will almost certainly suffer if Alabama’s schools operate with even less funding as a result of declines in enrollment and greater immigration responsibilities.
5. Educators are forced to become immigration agents. The new law requires schools to review each newly enrolling student’s birth certificate and determine if the child was born in the United States or if the child is “an alien not lawfully present” in the United States. This requirement turns each school administrator and teacher into an immigration agent. Educators do not have the background or training to determine an individual’s immigration status. And it is not their job.
6. Children fear that they will be forced to report the status of their parents. The law requires each enrolling student to present an original birth certificate, but it does not say how the school is supposed to determine the status of the parents. Court briefs have pointed to reports of students being asked by teachers about the status of their parents. Both undocumented and U.S. citizen kids fear that they will be forced to betray their own parents by schools trying to comply with the new law.
7. The teacher/student relationship is undermined. A successful and productive educational environment is grounded in a relationship of respect and trust between teachers and students. This relationship is completely undermined by Alabama’s new law. As the head of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, states: “Educators should not be put in the position of being immigration law enforcers. Teachers should be safety nets, not snitches—guardians, not guards.”
8. The educational environment is one of fear rather than safety. A positive educational environment requires an atmosphere of safety for students. The new Alabama law has made schools places of fear. According to Bill Lawrence, the principal of Foley Elementary School, “A child in fear can’t learn. All you’re thinking about is ‘is my mom and dad gonna be home.’”
9. U.S. citizen and lawful resident children are fearful as well. It is not just undocumented children who are afraid. U.S. citizen and lawful resident kids fear for themselves and their parents. Roseann Rodriguez, a counselor in Birmingham schools, reports “My sixth graders of African American descent were asking me if they were going to have to go back to Africa. There is a fear factor out there that is written between the lines of the law, that’s having a ‘chilling effect’ on Alabama classrooms.”
10. The federal government has to intervene to project the rights of children. In addition to asking the courts to overturn several sections of the new Alabama law, the U.S. Department of Justice has warned Alabama that the new immigration law does not allow schools to deny children access to public education. The Justice Department is asking schools to provide detailed monthly enrollment information to make sure that they are not violating federal law. Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez wrote that the new law “may chill or discourage student participation in, or lead to the exclusion of school-age children from public education programs.”