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Let Children Learn — In Alabama and Beyond

Guestbloggers: Azadeh Shahshahani, National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project Director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia,  and Daniel Altschuler, a political scientist and free-lance journalist.

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.”

Crossposted from the Huffington Post.

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.

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Few states walking a failed path

Guest blogger: Elena Lacayo from The National Council of La Raza

Despite the initial hype that anti-immigrant legislation modeled after Arizona’s SB 1070 would spread quickly through the country, state after state has rejected proposals to follow Arizona down its failed path. In the year since SB 1070 was signed, 24 states have rejected copycat legislation. Even Arizona legislators recently voted down a new set of anti-immigrant bills in response to mounting pressure from the business and civil rights leaders.

In some cases, states have rejected the flawed legislation twice over. For example, last week, Florida became the second state to reject SB 1070 copycat legislation for the second time since SB 1070 was passed in Arizona (Kansas having been the first). The debate there was contentious and controversial. Indeed, even the sponsors of anti-immigrant legislation began to walk away from their own proposals, leaving their bills to die at the very end of the legislative session. Florida got the message too and recognized that extreme anti-immigrant legislation comes with great economic, social, and political costs.

Unfortunately, not all states have learned the lesson from the failed experiment in Arizona.

Earlier this week, Utah’s Arizona-copycat law HB 497, the “Utah Illegal Immigration Enforcement Act,” was implemented for less than a day before it was put on hold by the courts. And today, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed into law HB 87, the “Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011,” harmful anti-immigrant legislation modeled after Arizona’s widely criticized and unquestionably flawed SB 1070. Both of these bills mimic the draconian Arizona legislation, providing local law enforcement with an overly broad license to investigate residents’ immigration statuses, thus, opening the doors to racial profiling.

States must ask themselves what Arizona has gained from pursuing this extremist approach to immigration reform. Instead of solving the problem, SB 1070 has inspired boycotts that cost Arizona hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism revenue and economic activity at a time when the state could least afford it. Governor Brewer has pumped $250,000 of public funds into a public relations campaign to repair the state’s tarnished image and continues to spend money defending SB 1070 against lawsuits, despite multiple court rulings upholding the unconstitutionality of the law.

Both Utah and Georgia are walking down the same failed path paved by Arizona lawmakers. These damaging pieces of legislation threaten the public safety and civil rights of state residents and will force both states to endure the same legal battles and financial losses that ensued in Arizona. Utah’s HB 497, which was signed by Utah Governor Gary Herbert on March 16 with a package of immigration bills, is already being challenged in court by civil right groups who argue that it violates federal law. Similar to Arizona, it is unclear how long or costly this legal battle will become.

Choosing to pursue the same course of action will also negatively impact the economy in both Utah and Georgia. A day before the Georgia law was even signed, new reports showed concern over the expected losses that would follow its approval. Opposition came from the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Georgia Farm Bureau. Even professional athletes scheduled to play at the Civil Rights Game in Atlanta this weekend have spoken out against the law due to concerns over racial profiling.

Twenty-four states have already rejected the irresponsible approach to immigration reform pioneered by Arizona; Georgia and Utah should heed the warning that nothing good will result from this legislation. While the American public is legitimately frustrated with the federal government’s failure to advance real immigration solutions, states cannot respond by passing irresponsible laws that legitimize racial profiling; lawmakers must create solutions that will reform the immigration system at the federal level. Utah and Georgia legislators must be part of this discussion, and we call upon their congressional delegations to help draft comprehensive legislation that fixes America’s immigration system.

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