True or false: No child in this country can be denied a public education. The answer is true, thanks to the Supreme Court's 1982 Plyler v. Doe decision, which held that schools could not exclude children based on their immigration status. This is settled law, but not for Alabama legislators, who passed an anti-immigrant law (HB 56) with a provision requiring elementary and secondary schools to determine students' and parents' citizenship status.
With a federal district court refusing to enjoin this provision, families with an undocumented family member are already keeping their children, including U.S. citizens, out of school. And, though an appellate court last month temporarily blocked the K-12 reporting requirement, the right to primary education access for all in our country remains in jeopardy.
This summer, civil and immigrant rights groups, religious institutions and the Department of Justice challenged HB 56 in federal court. Alabama's law contains many troubling provisions contained in anti-immigrant laws in other states, such as Arizona and Georgia, which were blocked by federal courts. But it goes much further, including the requirement in Section 28 that K-12 school officials determine their students' and parents' immigration status. Although the district court blocked certain sections of the law, it allowed this piece to stand.
As with Georgia's HB 87, proponents of HB 56 claim they are removing the drain on state resources. But, in truth, officials like Governor Robert Bentley are scapegoating immigrants for political gain at a time of economic insecurity. They have confessed their desire to expel undocumented immigrants from the state. HB 56 sponsor Micky Hammon asserted, "This [bill] attacks every aspect of an illegal immigrant's life... [T]his bill is designed to make it difficult for them to live here so they will deport themselves."
The law is so extreme that Wade Henderson, President and CEO of the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, concluded that Alabama's "draconian initiative is so oppressive that Bull Connor himself would be impressed." Birmingham's former sheriff, you may recall, once used attack dogs and fire-hoses on African-American children.
Even those skeptical of immigration's well-documented economic benefits should be appalled by Alabama officials' willingness to target children. In addition to violating the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection clause, Section 28 is morally repugnant. It uses state power to keep immigrant children, who bear no responsibility for their status, out of school. Moreover, while so many Alabama public schools are failing, the law unconscionably redirects scarce education resources towards immigration policing.
Finally, as the Court held in Plyler, "It is difficult to understand precisely what the State hopes to achieve by promoting the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare, and crime."
Sadly, HB 56 may reflect a larger national trend. In May, the Department of Justice issued a memo reaffirming the illegality of asking students about their immigration status. This followed illegal reporting requirements and efforts in other states to pass education provisions similar to HB 56. Recent reports by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for instance, found that roughly 20 percent of New York and New Jersey public school districts requested information from students that would indicate their immigration status. Similar practices abound in Arizona, where fully half of school districts surveyed by the ACLU sought such information.
The Department of Justice was right to issue its memo, and to seek data from Alabama school districts in the wake of HB 56's passage to investigate potential violations of civil rights statutes which protect educational opportunities for schoolchildren. It must be even more vigilant about illegal school reporting policies across the country, which may rise as restrictionist officials seek to copy HB 56.
It is encouraging that the appellate court temporarily blocked the education provision of HB 56. But beating Section 28 in court, while essential, will not by itself ensure that all American children can go to school without fear. Legislators and education officials around the country must take heed: our classrooms are no place for the refrain, "Papers, please."
Daniel Altschuler has written extensively on immigration politics and holds a doctorate in Politics from the University of Oxford, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar. Azadeh Shahshahani is National Security/Immigrants' Rights Project Director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.
A version of this article first appeared in the Fulton County Daily Report. Reprinted with permission from the October 28, 2011 issue of the Daily Report © 2011 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.