Federal Officials Say Alabama’s Immigration Law Hurt Hispanic Students

A U.S. Department of Justice official recently warned the superintendent of Alabama’s public schools that the state’s immigration law has hindered the ability of Latino children to obtain a quality education.

Thomas Perez, the U.S. assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, sent a letter to State Superintendent of Education Thomas Bice on May 1. Perez wrote that the Justice Department investigated attendance data and conducted interviews with students, parents, teachers and administrators that confirmed the department’s concerns.

“They confirm that H.B. 56 diminished access to and quality of education for many of Alabama’s Hispanic children, resulted in missed school days, chilled or prevented the participation of parents in their children’s education, and transformed the climates of some schools into less safe and welcoming spaces for Hispanic students,” he wrote.

The immigration law known as HB 56 that went into effect last September required Alabama schools to check the immigration status of public school students, though it didn’t bar undocumented students from enrolling. A federal judge blocked the piece of the law that required asking children’s status in October.

Perez wrote that an analysis of attendance data concluded that absences of Hispanic students tripled immediately after the law was passed because of fear among immigrant families. The data also showed that between the beginning of the school year and February, about 13.4 percent of the state’s Latino school children withdrew from school–an increase compared with past years.

Although the fear has faded somewhat since that part of the law regarding children’s status was blocked, Perez said the investigation found the legislation has had “continuing and lasting consequences.”

Also alarming, he added that Hispanic children reported that the law hurt their ability to focus on their education. “Hispanic children reported increased anxiety and diminished concentration in school, deteriorating grades, and increased hostility, bullying and intimidation,” he wrote. “Teachers and administrators reported the detrimental impacts on students, from student absences to precipitous drops in academic engagement and performance.”

The letter reminds the state that the 1982 Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe ensures all students access to the public schools, regardless of immigration status.

Even if you don’t work in Alabama, the U.S. Department of Education raised concerns last year that some districts are not properly enforcing Plyler and have enrollment practices that discourage illegal immigrant children from attending. For example, a district may ask for a birth certificate, but can’t deny enrollment if a foreign certificate is presented. A district also can’t require a social security number.

Have you heard of complaints in your state about enrollment practices? Have you checked your district’s enrollment requirements recently?

Read the letter here.

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Students Living in Mexico Cross Border to Attend U.S. Schools

They are known as transfronterizos: children living in Mexico who cross the border into the United States daily to attend public schools.

Students who use false addresses to gain access to better schools are a common problem in many school districts, but these students in particular have sparked controversy over the costs to U.S. taxpayers. Patricia Leigh Brown of The New York Times recently reported on students living in Tijuana, Mexico, who attend a high school in Chula Vista, California.

The story notes that some of the  teens–who were born in California and are American citizens–rise as early as 3 a.m. to make the hours-long journey to school. As a result, they struggle to keep awake in class. Many of their teachers are sympathetic to their challenges.

The students themselves seem to have mixed emotions about the situation.

“It’s stressful,” Martha, a high school senior, told the Times. “You can get found out and kicked out of school. Sometimes I feel bad for lying. But I’m just going to school.”

It’s interesting to note that undocumented immigrant children attending American schools–which is legal– spark similar controversy over the costs to taxpayers. But unlike most of the transfronterizos, the parents of undocumented immigrant students often do pay property taxes if they reside within a district.

Even when the children are Americans, is it fair to allow transfronterizos to attend U.S. schools? And because the reporter describes how exhausted the children are by the time they arrive at school, I’m curious about their graduation rates and what becomes of them after high school.

How to Break the “Blue-Collar” Ceiling for Latinos

A story in the Chicago Tribune this week recaps new research showing metro area Latinos have stayed trapped in low-skill, low-wage jobs in a handful of industries over the last decade, even though the overwhelming majority of them are American citizens. Lack of education appears to be the key factor holding them back.

A brief of the report is available here, in Latino Ed Beat’s research section.

DePaul University professor John Koval, who authored the report, told the Tribune, “These kids need to be educated and well-trained because the economy needs them so badly.”

His report notes that increasing Latinos’ access to early education and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) will be key steps. Working with parents and communities to change mindsets will be critical.

The Latino Policy Forum, a Chicago-based advocacy group, offers an example of how that change can happen. The forum recently announced the launch of a second year of its Abriendo Puertas (Opening Doors) program, training that equips Latino parents of children under the age of five with the knowledge and confidence to support their children’s learning and advocate for them as they enter preschool and elementary school. Abriendo Puertas is being offered by 17 nonprofit agencies across metro Chicago and will reach over 500 parents by the end of 2012.