Opinion: Immigration: Justice Dept. wants Alabama’s schools to cough up data


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This is a corrected version of the original post; see the note below.

Back in May, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education fired off a joint letter to all school districts in the nation reminding them they risked losing federal funding if they violated the Supreme Court’s 1982 ruling in Plyler vs. Doe by denying children access to a free education because of their immigration status.


That letter came as Alabama lawmakers considered enacting a harsh new immigration bill. The measure was eventually passed and was signed into law; it included a controversial provision that would require all school officials to determine the immigration status of students for budget purposes.

The Obama administration, along with civil and immigrant rights groups, later sued the state, arguing that Alabama was barred from adopting such laws because immigration rightly falls under federal control. A federal judge and a court of appeals agreed to temporarily block part of the law, including the school provision.

The matter seemed to be on hold until Monday, when the Justice Department fired off yet another missive, this one from Thomas Perez, who heads up the civil rights division.

[For the Record, added 3:00 p.m., November 2, 2011: The original post said the letter went out Tuesday. In fact it was sent Monday.]

The latest letter once again reminds Alabama school districts of their obligation to comply with Plyler, but it also requests school districts provide data to federal officials, including information on all students with unexplained absences in recent weeks, as well as the number and percentage of children who have withdrawn from schools, by race and national origin, by Nov. 14.

Perez was in Alabama last month to meet with stakeholders and gather information. During his trip, Perez told reporters that his office had received reports from students and advocates indicating some Latino students were being bullied by their peers and repeatedly questioned by teachers.

The Nov. 1 letter clearly is intended to let Alabama officials know the feds are keeping a close watch on the situation. But could it also signal the Justice Department is considering expanding the federal lawsuit filed against state officials? Some legal observers suggest collecting data is a first step.


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--Sandra Hernandez