Immigration Law and Schools: Trying to Calm Fears

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Across Alabama, people have been marching to spotlight children affected by the state’s strict new immigration law. The measure requires schools to record the immigration status of newly enrolled students. After more than 2,000 Hispanic students were absent from Alabama schools early last week, activists and educators are reaching out to families worried about what the law will mean for them. Dan Carsen has more from the Southern Education Desk at WBHM:

Roughly 80 people, most of them Spanish-speaking women and children, pack the media center of Tarrant Elementary School, just north of Birmingham. Considering the number of kids in the room and spilling out into the hallways, there’s surprisingly little noise. It’s a “Know Your Rights” meeting, meant to calm fears and familiarize families with their legal rights in light of Alabama’s tough new immigration law.

A middle-schooler, whose family did not want his name used, has a lot on his mind. He says, “I think they’re gonna come in our house and come kick the door and they’re gonna take my mom and dad.”

Sonja Smith is the school nurse at Tarrant Elementary. She sees the medical manifestations of the fear in the community:

“Kids have been out. They are scared to come to school. They’re having panic attacks. Some of the wives have passed out. Some of the husbands, they have been staying at home because they can’t go to work so they’re fighting with their wives, and the kids are involved in it, so they’re not … they’re not coming to school.”

Superintendent Shelly Mize, who’d been cradling babies throughout the talk, reassured the crowd that she’d spoken with local police and that they don’t have the resources to come looking for illegal immigrants. She also told concerned parents that if they’re detained, say, after a traffic stop, arrangements can be made for others to pick up their children up from school.

Mize thinks the law gets in the way of the American Dream:

“When families come here looking for a better life, you know, they should be allowed to strive for that, and not have to worry about sending their children to school. This is all these babies know. ”

Efforts to reassure families are coming from school systems and from groups like the Southeast Immigration Rights Network, which hosted the “Know Your Rights” Talk at Tarrant Elementary. Longtime Network activist Monica Hernandez reiterated that under the law, only numbers of undocumented students — no names — will be reported to the state department of education.

Interim State Superintendent Larry Craven makes the same point in defending the law:

“I’m trying to make you understand, all were about is gathering the data. And the data, provided ultimately to the legislature, will assist them with regard to a number of things. There’s all sorts of legitimate reasons why those questions are being posed about the child. We’re gonna comply with the law.”

But activists are vowing to continue their fight to overturn it. As Helen Rivas of the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice puts it, “This is not over till it’s over, and as Monica said, this is going to be going on for a very long time.”

On Friday, the Justice Department asked the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to stay the law after a similar request was rejected by a federal judge in Birmingham. Counterarguments will be filed through the middle of this week.