11/08/2011

Note to Alabama AG 'Big Luther': Stop Acting So Small

At 6-foot-9, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange would have towered over the diminutive George Wallace, the state’s segregationist governor during the violent days of the civil rights movement.

But lately, the attorney general has been looking equally small.

When Wallace stood in the “schoolhouse door” to stop African-American students from enrolling in the University of Alabama, it was all for show. In a carefully choreographed scene, Wallace stepped aside when confronted by Deputy U.S. Attorney Nicholas Katzenbach and the National Guard.

Wallace’s infamous obstructionism that day in 1963 was nothing more than a symbolic gesture to satisfy the state’s segregationist voters. With Strange, we can only hope that his position is similar political posturing.

The issue today is Strange’s reaction to a request by the U.S. Justice Department for data on school absences and withdrawals in the wake of Alabama’s harsh new immigration law. Among its many anti-immigrant provisions, HB 56 requires schools to ask children about their immigration status and that of their parents. The Department’s request came in response to widespread civil rights complaints that Latino children are now scared to go to school.

Strange responded by questioning the Justice Department’s “legal authority” to make such a request, thus inviting the type of comparison to Wallace’s schoolhouse stand made by The New York Times in a Nov. 5 editorial.

We have known Strange for many years. We know that he's not a racist and that he’s worked hard over his legal career to move Alabama forward. We also know that he is smart — smart enough to recognize that the Justice Department has all the legal authority it needs.

We also know, without question, that the Justice Department has good reason to investigate the ongoing crisis in Alabama.

When the law was implemented in September, we established a hotline to hear from people affected by it and have received nearly 4,000 calls from terrified Latino immigrants – undocumented and documented alike.

Hundreds of these calls involved schoolchildren. Even though the school provision has been temporarily blocked by a federal court, many parents told us their children are still afraid to go to school – both for their own sake and because they fear their parents will be deported.

We’re hearing stories of children being bullied by classmates and harassed by teachers, a form of vigilantism that has been unleashed in Alabama by the passage of HB 56.

By threatening to obstruct the Justice Department’s work, the Alabama attorney general is simply delaying evidence of this law’s disgraceful impact from coming to light.

The U.S. Supreme Court long ago upheld every child’s right to receive a public education in this country – regardless of the child’s immigration status. The state of Alabama is now interfering with that right.

We hope Strange will live up to his nickname – “Big Luther” – and stop acting so small. Countless children are depending on it.

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