10/12/2011 07:00 am ET | Updated Dec 12, 2011

Hey Alabama, Take A Hint From California

While Alabama and other states are putting barriers to the education of immigrant children, California celebrates Latino Heritage Month by passing the California Dream Act, which will ensure that all deserving students get the opportunity to pursue higher education and be productive members of society. Alabama's recent court ruling to uphold significant portions of Alabama's immigration law seems shamelessly un-American. In light of reports that Latino students are vanishing from public schools in the wake of the ruling, we think it is timely to remind people why we celebrate Latino Heritage Month. Also, as Board members of the Los Angeles Unified School District, we care deeply about the education of all children and feel compelled to remind people why, as Americans, it is our responsibility to educate all children, regardless of immigration status, and why anti-immigrant state laws are un-American.

We must educate all children, regardless of immigration status, because it is the law of the land. In the Plyer case nearly 30 years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that every undocumented child must be provided a public education. The Supreme Court said that the state law in question, which denied funding for K-12 education to undocumented children, was "directed against children, and impose[d] its discriminatory burden on the basis of a legal characteristic over which children can have little control."

While proponents of current anti-immigrant state laws claim the measures do not prohibit undocumented children from attending school, the effect is that it does keep them at home. It does, in effect, deny them their right to a public education. Education officials in Alabama say that scores of immigrant families have withdrawn their children or kept them home after the court ruling. And several districts with large immigrant enrollments reported a sudden exodus of children of Latino parents. Anti-immigrant state laws cannot do indirectly what they are forbidden to do directly: deny undocumented children, many of whom are Latino, a public education.

Moreover, any suggestion by state officials in Alabama that their state is only trying to compile immigrant status statistics for benign purposes is naïve at best, disingenuous at worst. Such informational gathering cannot be benign when the law's findings start by stating that "The State of Alabama finds that illegal immigration is causing economic hardship and lawlessness in this state..." The findings go onto say that "because the costs incurred by school districts for the public... education" of undocumented children "adversely affect the availability of public education resources" to non-undocumented students, "the State of Alabama determines that there is a compelling need for the State Board of Education to accurately measure and assess the population of students who are aliens not lawfully present in the United States...." Immigration status statistics are not simply being collected for the sake of being collected. The students' information is being taken because, as the legislation's findings indicate, there is a presumption that these children are guilty of draining state resources.

Thus, the Alabama law is un-American on several levels. It is based on a premise that illegal immigrant students are guilty, until proven innocent, of being a drag on state resources. In America, you are innocent until proven otherwise. In America, all children have a right to public education. The Latino students in Alabama are therefore guilty with little chance of proving their innocence because, while their "costs" are immediate (and their guilt immediately apparent), their benefits do not materialize until long into the future. With the law that just took effect, the chance of these children's benefits materializing and becoming apparent - and the chance of these students proving their innocence - has just diminished substantially. In fact, the benefits may have turned to costs because, as the Plyer decision stated, denying the undocumented children a proper education would likely contribute to "the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare, and crime."

The Alabama law is also un-American because it is contrary to what then-Senator Obama said in his July 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention: America is the "Beacon of freedom and opportunity for those that have come here." For thousands of undocumented Latino immigrant students, the Alabama law does away with the America that made President Obama's story possible - an America where no children's dream is impossible and where every child has an opportunity. State anti-immigrant laws make impossible human stories of self-determination, dignity and respect. They make impossible the stories that are only possible in America, such as that of leading U.S. neurosurgeon Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, who made it from being an undocumented California farm worker child to Harvard Medical School and who now directs and leads preeminent brain surgery and research programs at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, a leading hospital in the world. Just as President Obama said that "in no other country on Earth is my story even possible," so, too, only in America would Dr. Quinones-Hinojosa's story, and those of other Latino immigrant students, be possible.

We celebrate Latino Heritage Month to acknowledge opportunity in this country and remind ourselves of our American traits: self-determination, dignity and respect. Celebrate with us Latino Heritage Month by expressing your support for an America where all children have a right to education. We must oppose any attempt to limit or deny children a chance to be productive members of this society.

We call on Congress and President Obama to address issues related to the Federal Dream Act immediately.

In the spirit of hope.

Daughters of Immigrants,

Mónica García
Board President
Los Angeles Unified School District

Nury Martinez
Board Member
Los Angeles Unified School District

The Los Angeles Unified School District is the second largest school district in the country, with about 665,000 students, 73% of whom are Latino.