Fear and Learning in Alabama: Undocumented Students Flee

Alabama public schools are seeing a sharp drop in Latino student attendance after a federal judge approved a provision in HB 56 that requires school to check birth certificates.

By Jorge Rivas Oct 03, 2011

Some Alabama schools are reporting a significant number of their Latino students are not showing up or withdrawing from classes. The reports have come in since last Thursday, immediately after a federal judge upheld key provisions of the state’s HB 56 immigration law.

Last Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn returned her ruling for the Department of Justice’s challenge to HB 56, a bill that’s widely recognized as the harshest state immigration law on the books. Blackburn gave the go-ahead to a provision that demands that K-12 schools track the immigration statuses of enrolled students.

In Foley, Alabama, many of the 223 Latino students at Foley Elementary came to school on Thursday crying and afraid, Principal Bill Lawrence told the Press Register. Nineteen of them withdrew, and another 39 were absent. Lawrence said he expected even more students would be gone this week as families fled over the weekend.

Foley Elementary has the area’s largest percentage of Latino students: about 20 percent of its entire student body. 

All students must now present birth certificates. If they fail to do so the school is required to flag those students in the statewide computer system saying that no proof of citizenship was provided.

"We just key it in. That’s all we do. We are not the enforcers. We just put it in the system. What happens from there, I don’t know," Lawrence said.

The Supreme Court has upheld elementary and secondary education as a constitutional right to all young people in the U.S., regardless of immigration status. It’s unclear what happens to students once they’ve been flagged for not providing birth certificates.

Community leaders across the country predicted undocumented immigrant parents who fear being tracked by the government would likely be too fearful to send their kids to school, said Kevin Johnson, a professor of immigration law at the University of California, Davis in an interview with Colorlines.com.

In 1994, undocumented parents in Los Angeles also took their children out of school after California voters approved Proposition 187. That legislation attempted to deny public services to undocumented immigrants. Hoover Street Elementary saw many students disappear with no warning. The school is located in the the city’s Pico-Union district, a neighborhood often called the "Ellis Island" of Los Angeles because an estimated 90 percent of residents in the area are economic and political refugees from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador living below the poverty line.

Filmmaker and former educator Laura Simon was a teaching at Hoover Elementary when she decided to bring cameras into her classroom. She made a documentary called "Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary" that followed 9-year-old fifth-grader Mayra to illustrate the  impact of the proposition on young people. But in the middle of her film Mayra disappeared with no notice. Her family is believed to have returned to El Salvador because of fear they would be separated in the U.S.

Seventeen years later, parents in Alabama are experiencing those same fears.