On September 1, Alabama HB 56 went into effect and is already facing legal challenges in the courts. The law is broad and draconian, containing many provisions that are problematic. On October 5, a telephone conference was convened to discuss the immediate and “chilling” effects of the law on the Latino student population. One of the provisions that has been challenged and subsequently upheld by U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn, requires that new students enrolling in Alabama public schools prove their legal status in this country. The student’s parents’ status may also be called into question and the new law has created a fast moving crisis among Latino families in the state, regardless of their documentation.
The mandate that schools start collecting and reporting these statistics to the state, has effectively placed educators in the difficult position of becoming de facto immigration enforcement officials. As Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers, commented during the discussion, “(educators) are safety nets, not snitches.” Dennis Van Roekel, President of the National Education Association, agreed and said that the climate in Alabama classrooms is now one of fear, not only for undocumented Latino students, but also for students who are U.S. citizens but whose families may be comprised of either one or two undocumented parents. The fear of deportation, retaliation and possible racially motivated violence, has led many Latino parents to withdraw their children from school, harming not only the functioning atmosphere within the class, but also denying students their civil right of obtaining a public education.
It is their right. In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plyler vs. Doe, that students are entitled to a public education through 12th grade, regardless of their immigration status within the country. While it is not within the letter of HB 56 explicitly to deny access to education, creating a climate of fear throughout communities in Alabama, that results in the mass exodus of Latino children from schools, certainly appears to violate the spirit of Plyler vs. Doe.
One hopes that this observation is not lost on Sam Brooks, an attorney with the Immigrant Justice Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Mr. Brooks spoke about the potential high cost of enforcing the new regulations during the discussion. Responding to my question regarding the potential loss of funding to each school district due to the sudden drop in student population, Mr. Brooks affirmed that Alabama public schools are – at this moment – gathering statistics on the numbers of attending students; numbers that will influence how much money each district receives to fund the academic year.
Thus, the turmoil has the inherent threat to influence the type of education received by all students in the state. However, for Latino students in particular, we must be attentive to the psychological ramifications of a harsh, codified discriminatory law and real world implications for the creation of a permanent, uneducated Latino underclass within the state.