The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Education after the agency refused to release public records detailing the impact of the state’s temporary law against undocumented immigrants on Latino student attendance.

Under Section 28 of HB 56, school officials were required to ask families about their immigration status when they enrolled their children in school. The measure went into effect Sept. 29, 2011 and was temporarily blocked by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Oct. 14, 2011. In June, the court ruled that Section 28 violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, and deemed other provisions of HB 56 unconstitutional.

While school officials maintained that the statute did not block undocumented students from enrolling in the public school system and the required information was only for statistical purposes, many Spanish-speaking families weren’t taking any chances.

Several districts with large immigrant enrollments -– from small towns to large urban districts –- reported a sudden exodus of children of Latino parents, some of whom told officials they planned to leave the state to avoid trouble with the law. In Montgomery County, more than 200 Latino students were absent the morning after the law went into effect. A handful withdrew. In tiny Albertville, 35 students withdrew in one day, and about 20 students in suburban Birmingham’s Shelby County either withdrew or told teachers they were leaving.

The U.S. Department of Justice requested and obtained exact data on student enrollment for K-12 students before and after the law was enacted. According to the DOJ, Latino student absences more than tripled and remained high even after Section 28 was blocked by federal courts.

When the SPLC asked for the same attendance records, the request was denied. The SPLC is now suing the Alabama Department of Education for refusing to release the data.

“By law, schools must ensure the rights of all children to attend school free from discrimination, including discrimination on the basis of immigration status,” Sam Brooke, staff attorney for the SPLC, said in a statement. “Section 28 interferes with that basic right. The legislature and the governor have claimed that Section 28 will not have any impact on enrollment, yet the Department of Justice is reporting that Alabama’s own data shows a significant and measureable decline in Latino students’ school attendance. Alabamians have a right to see the data for themselves, to know the impact this law is having.”

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