Alabama's Legislature has made children the chief victims of the nation's harshest anti-immigrant law. With its requirement that school officials determine the immigration status of children when they enroll — and with anecdotal reports that students are being grilled by teachers and administrators on the subject — it's small wonder that the absentee rate among Latino children has reportedly skyrocketed.
This wrongheaded requirement is part of a law that went into effect this month and that has done little but produce fear and confusion among Alabama's undocumented residents, many of whom are Latino. Already, reports are coming in about Latinos who are afraid to work, attend school or, in some cases, to remain in the state. Indeed, that may be the impact the law's authors hoped for.
Thankfully, a federal appeals court stepped in Friday and temporarily blocked the provision that requires school officials to determine students' immigration status. But now the federal government must do everything it can to ensure that this provision is permanently overturned, along with the rest of the law.
In May, the Education and Justice departments wrote to all school districts in the country, warning that they risked losing federal funding if they violated the Supreme Court's 1982 ruling in Plyler vs. Doe by denying children access to a free education because of their immigration status. Alabama officials countered that they were not trying to drive away schoolchildren; rather, they hoped to gather information helpful to school districts for statistical purposes.
That's disingenuous. The Obama administration should make the argument in court that any law that intimidates undocumented children and parents into withdrawing from public schools is a violation of Plyler. The 14th Amendment guarantees that all school-age children, including undocumented ones, are protected from discrimination. The Alabama law has, in effect, deterred undocumented students, as well as U.S.-born children whose parents or siblings may be undocumented, from entering the schoolhouse door.
The Justice Department's argument so far has been that Alabama is impermissibly making law in an area that rightly falls under federal control. That's true. But that's what happens when Washington ignores a problem as it has ignored immigration over the last decade: It just get worse.
The administration must use all the legal tools available to ensure that schools don't become ground zero in the fight over immigration reform.Then it must find the political courage to lead the way on this difficult but desperately important issue.