October 26, 2011

Alabama School Doors, Blocked Once Again

Nearly half a century ago, Alabama Governor George Wallace stood in a schoolhouse door and told U.S. Justice Department officials that his state Constitution forbade two black students from entering. With a little coaxing from the National Guard, Governor Wallace stood down and the students were admitted.

Today, Governor Robert Bentley symbolically stands in front of school doors across the state telling thousands of students that they, too, are unwelcome in Alabama schools, this time because of their immigration status.

Time and time again, courts have found that the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government final authority over immigration matters in this country. In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot deny a free public education to undocumented immigrants.

Yet earlier this year, Alabama passed the so-called Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, ordering school officials to track the immigration status of students and their parents. On September 29, when a federal judge allowed the law to go into effect, over 2,000 Alabama students were pulled out of school overnight.

Parents feared that school administrators and employees would suddenly act as immigration agents resulting in the exodus.

Fortunately, a federal judge has temporarily enjoined the portion of the Beason-Hammon Act which would require public schools to determine the immigration status of students, but several other equally damaging aspects of the law remain in effect.

In the wake of the Beason-Hammon Act coming into effect, the U.S. Justice Department Justice Department officials are monitoring for bullying incidents linked to the law. According to Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez, the Department has heard a number of reports of increases in bullying across Alabama.

Ironically, efforts are currently being made to pass an enumerated anti-bullying bill in Alabama that would protect students from bullying, harassment, and intimidation based on race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. GLSEN strongly supports these efforts and commends Alabama state Rep. Patricia Todd on the introduction of this bill.

At the same time, it is very unfortunate that the Beason-Hammon Act is countering efforts to make Alabama schools safer.

What all children—regardless of immigration status—need to succeed is an education in a safe and supportive environment. Over time, this nation has made a great deal of progress toward making sure each child receives just that. It is unfortunate that Alabama lawmakers would try to impede that progress.

One can only hope that this president’s Justice Department has the same success that President Kennedy’s did forty-eight years ago, and that 2,000 children in Alabama will be able to return to school.

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