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Marielena Hincapié

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Alabama's Assault on Civil and Human Rights

Posted: 10/12/11 05:05 PM ET

On September 28, a federal court in Alabama shut the door on equality, educational opportunities, and fundamental fairness. In denying an emergency stay request in Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, et al., v. Bentley, et al., which we at the National Immigration Law Center and a broad civil rights coalition filed challenging Alabama's draconian anti-immigrant law, the federal court instead opened the door to fear, hatred, discrimination, and an attack on the most vulnerable of all -- Alabama's children.

The court's decision is not entirely surprising given Alabama's deep-seated structural racism and the shameful history of denying Black Alabamians their civil and human rights. Federal courts should serve to protect the constitutional rights of all of us, especially when an emboldened, extremist legislature enacts laws that spew with hatred and aim to undermine the fundamental rights of a minority. Sadly, this is not the case: the intended consequences of Alabama's heinous new law were felt within hours of Judge Blackburn's decision.

Among the most ill-conceived provisions allowed to go into effect is the requirement that school administrators verify the citizenship status of students at the time of enrollment. This mean-spirited requirement undercuts the well-established constitutional right that all children -- regardless of immigration status -- have to attend the nation's public elementary and high schools. Although the new law should not impact students who are already enrolled this school year, we have already begun to see the chilling fallout. By Friday September 30, thousands of Hispanic Alabamian children did not show up to school for fear of being detained by immigration or having their parents detained.

In response to the humanitarian crisis being unleashed in Alabama, the legal team set up an emergency hotline. The calls are heartbreaking and enraging. One call we received was from the mother of a 4th grader in Montgomery, AL whose teacher immediately questioned the student about her immigration status. Upon finding out the student is a U.S. citizen, the teacher proceeded to ask the 4th grader about her parents' status. The teachers also asked other Latino students similar threatening questions.

As if this were not horrific enough, the water departments across the state have notified residents that they will begin requiring proof of status in order to obtain the most vital of all utility services. A man who was assaulted and robbed was afraid to go to the emergency room or call the police. A woman with a 2-week old baby was afraid to call 911 despite fearing she might be attacked.

One can only ask: what has happened to Alabama? What is happening to our nation?

The passage of Alabama's draconian HB 56 and the federal court's decision must be a call to action for all of us. Children's groups, educators, civil and human rights defenders must stand up against such oppressive laws that threaten the very fabric of our society. We cannot allow for Alabama to repeat the lessons of yesteryear without consequence. We must understand this as nothing less than an attack against children and all of us who believe in justice, equality, fairness, and freedom. Let's save our country's soul by organizing against such repression and for a healthier and just society.

We will continue to fight in the courtroom and defend the rights of all until we strike down these unconstitutional laws.

What will you do?