De Leon: Alabama’s Immigration Law Fails Our Future

A classroom in Birmingham, AL

A classroom in Birmingham, AL. (Photo: Terry McCombs/flickr)

Last Friday, close to 2,000 Latino students in Alabama didn’t show up at school. That is roughly five percent of the Latino children in the school system. Their parents kept their children away out of fear – twenty-four hours earlier, Alabama had begun asking students for papers.

The state passed what is arguably the harshest immigration law in the nation in June but its implementation was delayed until a federal judge ruled on lawsuits filed by the Justice Department, national civil rights groups, and church leaders. Last Wednesday, the judge, Sharon Lovelace Blackburn, upheld several parts of the statute, including the one that prompted parents to keep their children at home and some to even leave the state.

This law mandates that public schools check birth certificates when a child enrolls for the first time. If a birth certificate is not presented, parents or guardians have up to 30 days to submit other documentation or sign an affidavit about the citizenship or immigration status of the student. Otherwise, the children are counted as undocumented.

The law does not require school officials to submit names of undocumented students to immigration authorities, but the fear among immigrant families in the state—many are a mix of individuals with and without papers—is understandable. The law’s passage indicates that the loud anti-immigrant rhetoric in Alabama has been codified.

Such laws, and the reaction to them, will keep many children of immigrants – native and foreign-born alike – from their constitutional right to an education. This will have serious implications not only for their future but for our nation’s future.

Children of immigrants are the fastest growing segment of our population. They account for nearly the entire growth in the country’s child population during the past two decades. As of 2010, one in four children in the U.S. is part of an immigrant family–the majority Latino.

The number of Latino children in our public schools has been steadily increasing. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that at the turn of the century, 16 percent of all children in the school system were Latino. A decade later, 22 percent of all students are Latino. The Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics projects that by mid-century, four out of ten children will be Latino, up from two out of ten today.

This considerable demographic shift will have major social, political, and economic implications. In less than a decade, when baby boomers reach retirement age, the current cohort of immigrant youth will comprise a large proportion of the workers, taxpayers, and voters who will bear the responsibility of supporting our aging population and maintaining America’s place in a fast-changing global order.

For this reason–among other, moral responsibilities–it is imperative that we provide quality education for Latino children and other children of immigrants to prepare them for our shared future.

Current education statistics indicate that we are not doing a good job.

The Children’s Defense Fund reports dismal information. American schools are resegregating. Seventy eight percent of Latino students are in predominantly minority schools. Eight in ten Latino public school students in grades four, eight and 12 are reading or doing math below grade level. Latino students are underrepresented in gifted and talented programs. Thirty percent of Latino high school students attend the more than 1,600 “dropout factories” across the country. Only six in ten Latinos finish high school.

Now state anti-immigration laws are making it worse for these immigrant children. And ultimately, the rest of us.

Since the nineteenth century, public schools have been integral to the social, political and economic integration of immigrants. Through public education, new Americans have been introduced to their native-born neighbors, have learned how to be responsible citizens, and have gained the education necessary to be productive members of society.

A good education can give immigrant children the foundation necessary for higher education and subsequent gainful employment. This in turn will uplift the lives of these children and their families, economically and socially.

Unfortunately, the current trends in public education, exacerbated by reactionary immigration policies like the new Alabama law, will result in an underclass of poorly educated Americans who are expected to bear the rest of us on their shoulders.

We should be encouraging immigrants and their children to attend school, not scaring them away from getting an education.

You can follow Erwin de Leon on Twitter or read his blog.

AboutErwin de Leon
Erwin de Leon is a Policy Researcher and writer based in Washington, DC. He writes on immigration, LGBT, and nonprofit issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.