By Raul A. Reyes
They don’t call it the Bible Belt for nothing. In Alabama, leaders of the United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, Lutheran Church, and Roman Catholic Church have spoken out against HB 56, the state’s new anti-immigrant law. They say it runs counter to Christian principles.
HB 56, the country’s harshest immigration law, will make it a criminal offense in Alabama to rent a house or apartment to undocumented immigrants, or even give them a ride. Employers that hire illegal workers can be penalized once the law goes into effect on September 1.
Ironically, for a state so concerned with its residents’ legal status, HB 56 is itself of questionable legality. The law contains some of the same provisions as SB 1070 (also known as Arizona’s “papers please” law) that have been blocked in federal court. The problematic provisions include a requirement that the police check the immigration status of people during law enforcement contact if they have “suspicion” that the person may be an undocumented immigrant, and language allowing police to hold people in jail if they fail to carry documents proving their legal status.
But Alabama has gone further than Arizona. HB 56 bars undocumented immigrants from enrolling in public colleges, and requires public schools to ask K-12 students about their immigration status. Schools must track and report data on undocumented students to the state board of education and the state legislature. I find these provisions troubling. They serve no purpose except to intimidate undocumented immigrants, including children.
It’s hard to see why a state would ban all undocumented high school graduates from its colleges, even those who are paying their own way. It doesn’t make economic sense, as these are young people in whom the state has invested up to 12 years of education. While some of the high school grads may leave Alabama, as sponsors of HB 56 hope, it’s just as likely that many will seek off-the-books jobs, which will expand the state’s population of undocumented workers.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, last year Alabama was home to 120,000 undocumented immigrants who comprised 2.5 percent of the state’s population.
HB 56 doesn’t bar undocumented children from attending public school, which would be illegal. But it could make undocumented parents too afraid of the potential consequences to send their kids to school. Yet all children have a right to a public education, regardless of their immigration status. This is settled law, as decided by the Supreme Court in its 1982 Plyler v. Doe decision.
In May, the Justice Department issued a memo that warned school districts against interfering with the education of undocumented children. The memo made it clear that illegal immigrant kids are entitled to attend school without being asked for paperwork or getting hassled. Schools can ask students for proof that they live in the district, for example, but they may not inquire about their immigration status.
Practically speaking, HB 56 will burden teachers and educators with additional paperwork and recordkeeping. It will be a waste of time and resources in a state that’s in 43rd place in terms of overall educational performance. Turning teachers into de facto immigration agents will endanger trust between teachers and students, potentially further weakening the state’s educational system.
Alabama’s religious leaders are right to denounce HB 56. It’s ill-conceived and mean-spirited, and it scapegoats children. Not only does it make Alabama look bad, it should be a wakeup call to the federal government that it’s time for firm action on immigration, before the rights of more immigrants and children are put at risk by cruel state laws.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and columnist in New York City.