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Alabama's attorney general balks at giving feds school data

By Gustavo Valdes, CNN
updated 5:52 AM EDT, Thu November 3, 2011
The Justice Department wants enrollment information from Alabama schools to ensure they are not violating federal law.
The Justice Department wants enrollment information from Alabama schools to ensure they are not violating federal law.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Attorney General Luther Strange says he is "perplexed and troubled" over DOJ request
  • Feds want to make sure that Alabama schools are not denying children equal access to schools
  • Move comes after Alabama passes a controversial immigration law

Montgomery, Alabama (CNN) -- Alabama's attorney general questioned Wednesday whether the federal government has the legal right to ask for data from school districts in the state, which has recently passed controversial legislation intended to reduce illegal immigration.

In a letter sent Wednesday, Attorney General Luther Strange said he was "perplexed and troubled" about a request from the Justice Department for information about Alabama's schools.

The Justice Department issued the letter Tuesday to Alabama school districts to ensure they are complying with federal law, which declares that a child may not be denied equal access to schools based on his or her immigration status.

Strange's letter noted that the law was still being litigated.

Strange set a Friday noon deadline for Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for DOJ's civil rights division, to provide the legal authority for his request.

Alabama's immigration law under fire

Last spring, the Alabama legislature passed the law known as HB 56 relating to illegal immigration and a federal judge allowed most of its provisions to go into effect, including a mandate for public schools to ask about the immigration status of students enrolling in the system. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit granted the Justice Department's request for an emergency injunction for that section of the law but allowed other controversial parts to continue being enforced.

Justice urges Alabama schools' compliance on immigrant laws

The Alabama Department of Education sent a memorandum to school districts recommending they wait for resolution of the issue between the state attorney and Justice Department before responding to the DOJ request.

In the days following the implementation of HB 56, the number of Latino students skipping class spiked.

Malissa Valdes, communication manager for the Alabama Department of Education, said the number of Latino absentees has since leveled off but remains several hundred higher than normal.

The Department of Education also released enrollment numbers for the current school year showing an overall decrease in the student population but a 2.8 percent increase in Latino students, who represent some 35,000 of the state's 740,000 students.

Valdes said the state tried to inform the districts of possible changes related to HB 56 while stressing that no student should be denied enrollment regardless of legal status.

"If everyone sticks exactly to what the law asks from them and they don't go beyond, then there should not be any danger to the education of all students that are welcomed, no matter what," Valdes said.

Allison Neal, the American Civil Liberties Union's legal director in Alabama, said she is happy the Justice Department is asking state educators to do what they can to prevent Latino students from becoming discouraged about attending school.

"We want to make sure students have the right to their education," Neal said.

Valdes said the state sent letters to the schools and to students' parents before and after the law was enacted to prevent confusion.

The ACLU declined to comment on Strange's response to the DOJ request.

Officials at Birmingham City Schools have tried to encourage parents to keep their children in our schools and have told them their children would not be affected by the immigration law, said Michaelle Chapman, the schools' director of communications, in a statement. "On the heels of the court decision allowing the law to go into effect, we sent an automated call to all parents explaining that no information would be collected regarding children who already were enrolled. The call went out in Spanish to our Latino families."

The Montgomery School District sent Spanish-speaking teachers to areas with large numbers of Latinos to encourage the families to continue to send their kids to school.

At Evergreen Estates, a mobile home park on the outskirts of Montgomery, parents awaiting the return of their kids from school said they were not aware that some parents were keeping their children home out of fear of the law.

A Guatemalan woman in the United States without legal papers said she had left from Georgia with her eighth-grade son when the state started talking about a similar law and was considering leaving Alabama, too.

"I hear they are looking for farm workers in Florida," she said.

But, she added, she had never considered taking her child out of school.

Valdes said the number of students withdrawn from state schools will not be known for months because the schools have not received official notification from the families about permanently removing their kids.

She said the department will continue to work to ensure all children in Alabama continue to be educated. "We are here to educate the children but have to follow every law that is passed and active," Valdes said.

CNN's Terry Frieden and Joe Sutton contributed to this story

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