September 30, 2011

THE CLEAR INTENT of Alabama’s viciously xenophobic immigration law — and the likely effect, now that most of it was upheld by a federal judge this week — is to hound, harass and intimidate illegal immigrants into uprooting their lives and moving elsewhere. The law aims to do this by various means, but none is more pernicious than a provision requiring the state’s public schools to collect information on every student’s immigration status, starting in kindergarten and going to 12th grade.

In a ruling that tortures plain words and logic, U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn wrote that Alabama’s law does not create a state-specific registration scheme applicable to illegal immigrants, nor does it attempt to register anyone.

In fact, that’s precisely what it does and is meant to do. The law sets out procedures whereby schools must determine if enrolling students were born outside the United States or are the children of illegal immigrants. Any student whose parent or guardian does not provide that documentation will be automatically assumed to be an illegal immigrant and classified as such by the schools in the state’s records.

In turning the schools into immigration registrars, Alabama’s new law flies in the face of good sense and settled law. The Supreme Court has specifically prohibited such registration schemes by the states aimed at immigrants, legal or illegal. And, in a ruling almost 20 years ago, it conferred on undocumented students an unfettered right to a public education through high school.

The court did so for sensible reasons. It noted that there is no legal precedent in America for punishing children for the actions of their parents. Writing for the court in a 1982 decision squashing Texas’s attempt to exclude illegal immigrants from public schools, Justice William Brennan said, “It is difficult to understand precisely what the State hopes to achieve by promoting the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare, and crime.”

Apparently, Alabama didn’t get the message. By forcing schools to collect and report data on the immigration status of students and their parents, the state will frighten kids away from attending school. The day after Judge Blackburn’s ruling, the Press-Register of Mobile, Ala., reported that 58 of 223 Hispanic students at a local elementary school either withdrew from school or were absent.

Most likely, illegal immigrants will simply go further underground, or move to more hospitable parts of the country — leaving Alabama bereft of the labor it needs to pick crops, wash dishes in restaurants and do landscape and construction jobs. Indeed, Alabama farmers are already warning that the law will leave them badly shorthanded at harvest time.

By vilifying and victimizing schoolchildren and their families, Alabama lawmakers are mounting an end run around Supreme Court precedent in hopes of cleansing communities of what they see as the scourge of illegal immigrants. But the real legacy will be a wave of fear, bitterness and desperation in hardworking minority communities . In Alabama, the nation’s ugly fight over immigration policy just got uglier.