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Justice urges Alabama schools' compliance on immigrant laws

By Terry Frieden, CNN Justice Producer
updated 7:14 PM EDT, Tue November 1, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: State education department has no comment on the Justice Department letter
  • The Justice Department continues to challenge some state laws on illegal immigration
  • The department wants school districts in Alabama to describe their enrollment practices
  • Federal law: Denying schooling because of immigration status is unconstitutional

Washington (CNN) -- The Justice Department Tuesday issued a letter to Alabama school districts to make sure they are abiding by federal law, which declares that a child may not be denied equal access to schools based on his or her immigration status.

The letter from the Civil Rights Division asked each school district to describe its enrollment practices regarding immigrant students.

The Justice Department quoted existing law that says denying innocent children the benefit of schooling because of their immigration status is unconstitutional.

A spokesman for the Alabama Department of Education said there was no immediate comment on the Justice Department letter.

"We have heard about the letter" sent to the individual school districts, said department spokesman Michael Sibley. "What our interim head of education said is he doesn't want to comment on it pending guidance from the state attorney general."

The letter comes as Justice Department lawyers continue to challenge state laws designed to step up enforcement of illegal immigration. The federal government has gone to court in Arizona, Alabama and South Carolina to strike down state-passed laws aimed at curbing a perceived influx of illegal immigrants.

In its most recent action, the Justice Department went to court in South Carolina to declare the state had pre-empted the federal government's role in the enforcement of all immigration laws.

Justice Department officials on Monday said they were also reviewing laws passed in Utah, Indiana and Georgia and weighing whether to sue those states over immigration-related matters.

In the letter to Alabama schools, the federal officials said the districts must provide extensive data on students, including a list of all enrolled students identifying their race, national origin and whether they are participating in English-language learning.

It also asked the schools to identify any students who had withdrawn from school or had been absent from school during the current school year. The government gave Alabama two weeks to respond to its requests.

Sibley noted Alabama's education department will release an annual report Wednesday on average daily student membership at state schools. The information comes from the individual school districts, he said, and includes an ethnicity breakdown.

The report is unrelated to the Justice Department letter, Sibley said, calling it "something we do every year and have always done."

"It's who's in school -- essentially a snapshot of the first 20 days in school," he said.

CNN's Nick Valencia contributed to this report.

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