Alabama Schools Caught Discriminating Against Undocumented Kids

By Julianne Hing Jun 13, 2014

Alabama schools are in the midst of updating their policies after the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) sent notice that the vast majority of the state’s 134 school districts were violating federal law by preventing undocumented students from enrolling. 

"We have met with representatives from the SPLC and have developed a course of action to make revisions to enrollment procedures and accompanying forms," Tommy Bice, Alabama State Superintendent said in a statement to Colorlines.

On May 22, the SPLC notified 96 Alabama school districts that their school admissions and registration policies violated federal protections that bar schools from discriminating against students based on immigration status. School districts frequently asked parents to provide their children’s Social Security numbers or birth certificates without telling them that sharing that information is completely voluntary.

Those acts violate Plyler v. Doe, a 32-year-old Supreme Court decision which upheld undocumented children’s right to receive a public education. By requiring proof of immigration status, school districts, unknowingly or not, intimidated some parents into keeping their children home from school.

"This issue is affecting hundreds of families across the state, and is likely to go up as the immigrant community in Alabama grows," said Jay Singh, a staff attorney at the SPLC. The organization renewed its efforts after fielding complaints from a half dozen families about their school districts’ enrollment policies.

In 2012 the SPLC began hearing reports from parents who said that schools refused to enroll their children. At the time, said Singh, the SPLC notified schools in two districts–Homewood and Autauga–and worked with those localities to bring their enrollment policies into compliance with the law. The SPLC also asked Superintendent Bice to do the same for all Alabama school districts. Bice then issued a memo notifying Alabama school districts that they couldn’t condition enrollment on receipt of a student’s Social Security number or birth certificate. The Departments of Justice and Education had jointly issued a guidance in 2011 with similar reminders.

Still, said Singh, "Very little changed." After conducting a brand new review of schools’ enrollment forms this year, the SPLC found more than 90 school districts violating clear statements of the law from every level, including well-established law from 1982, repeated guidances and memos from Superintendent Bice. It wasn’t until the SPLC sent individually tailored letters to every school district in Alabama detailing exactly where they were out of compliance that the group began seeing a response.

Representatives from the SPLC and Bice’s office met last Friday to hammer out proposed updates to Alabama school updates in response to notices that the SPLC sent to 96 of the state’s 134 school districts. The state has pledged to develop a standardized enrollment form that all school districts could use, said Singh. "Our goal is that these revisions will be in place prior to the beginning of the 2014 to 2015 school year," Bice said in his statement.

In May of this year, just two weeks before the SPLC sent notice to the 96 school districts, the Department of Justice and Department of Education issued an updated guidance (PDF) to school districts across the country spelling out Plyler v. Doe. It includes the do’s and don’ts of enrollment practices. For example: a school district may ask for a utility bill to verify a student’s address, but should not be asking for a student’s proof of immigration status. Between its 2011 and 2014 guidance, the Department of Education received 17 complaints that school districts were still flouting the law by asking for proof of students’ immigration status.

In February, the Southern Poverty Law Center also filed complaints over similar practices in two North Carolina school districts. In New Orleans, charter schools have repeatedly asked parents for proof of students’ or parents’ immigration status, said Cristi Rosales-Fajardo, an organizer at VAYLA-New Orleans.

And it’s not limited to the South, either. In the 2009 to 2010 school year, the New York Civil Liberties Union found that 139 of New York’s 694 school districts were asking for proof of parents’ or students’ immigration statuses. 

The issue is of particular urgency in Alabama, where new immigrants are reshaping the state’s demographics. In particular, the Latino population grew 145 percent between 2000 and 2010. Between the 2002 to 2003 and the 2012 to 2013 school years Latino student enrollment in Alabama nearly tripled–from 13,023 to 37,685. Statewide public school enrollment grew only by 2 percent, from 727,900 students to 744,637.

Alabama lost its battle in support of HB 56, a virulently anti-immigrant state law passed in 2011, which would have required schools to catalogue the immigration statuses of their students–exactly that which the federal government prohibits.

In their review, the SPLC found that a small minority of school administrators would ask for a Social Security number on the Spanish version of their enrollment forms but not on the English version, signaling some discriminatory intent. But in most cases, said Singh, the issue is one of passive non-compliance on the part of schools, and the lack of proactive oversight on the part of states. 

For community organizers, the work is in making sure parents know their rights, said Isabel Rubio, executive director of Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama. "This is a solvable problem," she said.