The U.S. Department of Justice has issued a stark warning against Alabama's controversial immigration law, which feds say has caused "increased hostility, bullying and intimidation," leading to a surge in school absences among Hispanic students, and will have "continuing and lasting" consequences.
The immigration law HB 56 and Section 28 have "diminished access to and quality of education for many of Alabama's Hispanic children, resulted in missed school days, chilled or prevented the participation of parents in their children's education, and transformed the climates of some schools into less safe and welcoming spaces for Hispanic children," Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez wrote in a letter to Alabama Superintendent of Education Thomas Bice.
The Justice Department sued Alabama last fall over that statute in the state's H.B. 56 -- signed by Republican Gov. Robert Bentley in June -- that requires schools to collect information on the immigration status of students who seek enrollment, though it does not block undocumented students from enrolling in the public school system. A federal appeals court last October blocked the state from implementing the statute, but ruled to stay parts of the law.
The latest letter, dated May 1, was released Thursday in the state. Perez notes that Hispanic student absence rates tripled immediately following the implementation of the law, while absence rates for other groups largely remained flat. He adds that the rate of Hispanic student withdrawals also "substantially increased" compared to previous years, as 13.4 percent of the state's students dropped out between the beginning of the school year and February 2012. (See letter below).
Alabama's Education Department spokesperson Malissa Valde-Hubert told POLITICO that 1,374 Hispanic students were absent from public schools on May 2, out of a total of 33,182 K-12 students across the state. Student absences usually numbered between 900 and 1,000 daily in previous years.
Even prior to the Justice Department's probe, widespread reports were already surfacing of Hispanic students vanishing from Alabama's public schools in the wake of the state's immigration crackdown. And amid claims that the law is creating a fearful and distrusting climate in the state, Hispanic students still in school were reporting instances of bullying.
In the Justice Department letter, Perez echoes the sentiment, noting that interviews with students, parents and educators have revealed that some schools have become "less safe and welcoming spaces" for Hispanic students. He writes:
Many Hispanic student reported staying home from or withdrawing from school out of fear that they would be questioned regarding their immigration status, or that of their family members. Hispanic students further reported being singled out to receive notices or attend assemblies about HB 56, based on their actual or perceived national origin or immigration status…. Hispanic children reported increased anxiety and diminished concentration in school, deteriorating grades, and increased hostility, bullying and intimidation. Teachers and administrators reported the detrimental impacts on students, from student absences to precipitous drops in academic engagement and performance.
Alabama Republican state Sen. Scott Beason dismissed Perez's letter in a statement to The Montgomery Advertiser.
"The Department of Justice has already made it clear they're on the side of illegal immigration," Beason said. "Anything they say or do to try to bully the state of Alabama or other states across the country does not surprise me at all."
The Justice Department is charged with enforcing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which mandates that states cannot deny children equal access to public education based on race, sex, religion, color or national origin.
Last November, Perez sent a letter to Alabama school superintendents requesting information on enrollment practices, saying Section 28 of the immigration law may "chill or discourage" young people from taking part in public education. Perez noted that the information and data collected would be used to determine whether Alabama school districts are complying with federal law and "whether further action is warranted." At the time, school superintendents said districts don't collect information on students' countries of origin, nor do they record specific reasons for absences.
The Justice Department had set a data submission deadline for school districts for two weeks after the initial request -- and once every month thereafter -- but Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange later responded, questioning the federal agency's legal authority to acquire enrollment information about the state's public school students. The Justice Department continued the series of sparring letters, noting its "express authority" to investigate violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act.