Yesterday, the Justice Department sent a letter to superintendents in Alabama to ensure their school districts were still abiding by a federal law that students may not be denied access to school based on immigration status. After HB 56, Alabama’s harmful anti-immigrant law, went into effect, absenteeism among Hispanic students increased because they were too scared to go to school.
A portion of the law that has been temporarily blocked by the Eleventh Circuit asked schools to collect information about the immigration status of newly enrolled students. The letter from DOJ’s civil rights division said focused on the effect the law had on students:
It has come to our attention that the requirements of Alabama’s H.B. 56 may chill or discourage student participation in, or lead to the exclusion of school-age children from, public education programs based on their or their parents’ race, national origin, or actual or perceived immigration status, or based on their homeless or foster care status and consequent lack of documentation.
As you know, in Plyler v. Doe…the Supreme Court held that a State may not deny a child equal access to public education based on his or her immigration status. [...]
Because this matter may implicate the civil rights laws that we enforce, we request that the District provide information to assist us in determining what further action, if any, is warranted.
In the letter, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez asked for information ranging from the number of students who had withdrawn and their national origin, absenteeism rates, and the number of students students participating in English Language Learning programs before and after HB 56 went into effect.
Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said the letter was a sign that “the Justice Department is being very aggressive. South Carolina was just sued yesterday on a bill very similar to Alabama’s.” He added, “I have not had a chance to review the DOJ letter in detail, but I can assure you that we’re not going to deny any child an education.”
Even if Strange says children are not being denied an education, students were too intimidated by the law to attend school after the law went into effect, and the thousands who left school or are not showing up are unlikely to return if their families leave the state because of other parts of the law.