Hundreds of Hispanic students have been absent from school days after a judge upheld key provisions of Alabama's immigration bill. However, school officials said the numbers are not reason for alarm and are working to calm local fears.
Federal District Court Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn allowed a slightly amended version of the state's immigration bill to become law Thursday, including a provision requiring public schools to verify the immigration status of children enrolling at schools for the first time.
The decision was followed by a number of student absences.
In Montgomery, Ala., 231 Hispanic children were absent from school Thursday, the first day the law went into effect, according to superintendent Barbara Thompson.
Tuscaloosa City Schools also reported at least 10 Hispanic parents withdrawing their children from school late last week.
Nez Calhoun, director of public information for Jefferson County schools, told The Christian Post that everyone must be careful about jumping to conclusions.
In Jefferson County, schools reported that 139 Hispanic students were absent on Thursday and 135 on Friday. Compared to the normal number of absences at the end of the week, she said, "That's not many at all." The county also had four Hispanic students withdraw from school.
"We have to be very careful about why people are absent. We don't know why they are [absent]; they haven't told us," Calhoun said.
Annabelle Frank, a legal Cuban-born Alabama resident and mother, explained on National Public Radio her reason for pulling her child from school.
"I'm actually considering homeschooling because I don't want him (her son) involved in all this," she said.
Frank continued, "Because he is Hispanic, in some way he's going to be singled out. I'm really afraid of that."
Bishop William Willimon of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church also reported that some churches in his conference have experienced a 50 percent drop in attendance since the state legislature began considering the state immigration law.
"Spanish pastors are telling me that people are leaving. Most of the people who are active in these churches are fully documented. Many are leaving, I think, because they are hurt," Willimon said.
Willimon also said that some Hispanics have illegal immigrants in their houses and in their familes.
Calhoun said the school has clarified to parents via the media and robocalls to homes that schools are not checking the immigration status of current or past enrolled students, just newcomers. Additionally, she said, the schools are not turning away any students even if they cannot verify their status as legal U.S. residents.
"Schools are not going to kick any students out. We are simply charged by this law to send the numbers down to the state of those who could be illegal aliens," she said. "The information will be sent to the state department of education, and we will also send numbers; we will not send names."
Federal law requires public schools to provide K-12 education to all children including illegal immigrants.
Willimon commended schools for trying to calm immigrants' fears, but said the state immigration law is a cause for legitimate concern. "The law makes it illegal not to report people that one knows are undocumented," Willimon said.
In Judge Blackburn's 115-page ruling, she gave the state permission to implement several portions of immigration law designed to curb illegal immigration within state lines. The provisions allowed to stand include ones that allow police to detain anyone without documentation who is suspected of being in the United States illegally, as well as the provisions that require public schools to determine the legal residency of students.
Blackburn did, however, block parts of the bill that would make it unlawful for anyone to transport any illegal residents.
It is still illegal under federal law for anyone to knowingly harbor an illegal alien.
Willimon said he believes that the law is unenforceable. Judging by the law's mandates, he said, "It sounds like the purpose of the law is intimidation and meanness."
"I think there will be more [legal challenges] to come," Willimon predicted.
He teamed up with three other bishops from Alabama's Episcopal and Roman Catholic dioceses to file a federal lawsuit against the law on Aug. 1. They argued that it does "irreparable harm" to church members who could potentially be criminalized for trying to help undocumented immigrants.
When asked if he and other church leaders would file another lawsuit, he said, "We're studying that. We're meeting with attorneys and others to try and decide what to do."