Alabama immigration law pressures schools to check immigration status

Liz Goodwin
The Lookout

Alabama's new immigration law is drawing comparisons to SB1070, the anti-illegal immigration crackdown signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer last year before a judge quickly blocked it from going into effect.

But Alabama's new law is actually much broader and much tougher than SB 1070--most notably for a provision that asks school administrators to check the immigration status of their students.

Supporters say the law will help the state determine how much public money goes to educating undocumented children.

"That is where one of our largest costs come from," Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale told The Montgomery Advertiser. "It's part of the cost factor."

The law doesn't say schools should turn away students who can't provide documentation--that would be in blatant violation of the 1982 Supreme Court ruling Plyler v. Doe, which struck down a Texas law that forbade public money going to the education of illegal immigrants. In the Plyler case, the court ruled that fashioning laws to punish children violated the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law.

The court also argued that denying children education would create a permanent "subclass of illiterates" in America, adding to welfare costs and crime. (The law's creators say they've crafted the schools provision with the strictures of Plyler v. Doe in mind, and they think it will pass constitutional muster. Justice Department lawyers recently warned school districts in a letter that any laws that may "discourage" children from enrolling violates Plyler, in their opinion.)

But questions of constitutionality aside, the legislation will likely create a chilling effect on immigrant school enrollment, the law's opponents contend. Telling parents they must provide proof of citizenship of their children within 30 days next September may simply keep worried illegal immigrants from enrolling their kids, critics say.

An attendance coordinator at Elmore County Public Schools told The Montgomery Advertiser that asking the question is "tacitly trying to deny access to school." Meanwhile, the executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards Sally Howell told the paper administrators don't want to be caught in the "crosshairs" when the court battles begin, and would rather schools be left out of the state's immigration push.

"This really isn't the school board's business," Huntsville Board of Education President Topper Birney told WHNT. "We should be teaching kids and not enforcing the law. That is someone else's business."

The Mobile County School Board President Ken Megginson told Fox10 the schools would comply, but that "we are not in the law enforcement business."

Some officials also raised concerns that the verification process would cost cash-strapped schools money.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and civil rights organizations announced they will sue to block the law from going into effect in September. Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler wouldn't comment on whether the department would also file suit.

The National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration reform group, called the law "cruel," and said it goes far beyond Arizona's law in also making it criminal to rent housing to illegal immigrants.

"It blocks the schoolhouse doors to children, will result in people being turned away when they try to rent a home, and places burdens on people of color at the voting booth," said Cecilia Wang of the ACLU in a statement. "By signing this bill into law, Gov. Bentley has codified official discrimination in the State of Alabama."

Alabama GOP Gov. Robert Bentley campaigned on the promise that he would help pass the toughest illegal immigration law in the country, and says the law will keep illegal immigrants from taking jobs from people authorized to be in the country. But it seems unlikely that many of the law's toughest provisions will ever go into effect.

Muzaffar Chishti, who directs the Migration Policy Institute at NYU Law School, says he thinks that the parts of the Alabama law that mirror SB 1070 by asking local law enforcement to check immigration status of suspects will be likewise be blocked by a judge. Similar laws that deal with renting to illegal immigrants have been struck down, most recently by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, so that provision may be blocked as well. The schools provision may also bite the dust.

"In its operation, it violates Plyler," Chishti says.

(Bentley: Mickey Welsh/AP/Montgomery Advertiser)