04/10/2013

SPLC urges Alabama school superintendent to protect rights of immigrant students

The SPLC today urged Alabama’s top public school official to address the widespread failure of schools and districts to comply with state and federal law when they request Social Security numbers for enrollment – a practice that chills enrollment of immigrant students in public schools. 

In a letter to Superintendent of Education Thomas Bice, the SPLC described how out of a sample of 124 enrollment forms representing 81 Alabama school districts, no district complied with the legal requirements for requesting Social Security numbers. The SPLC asked Bice to notify the organization by April 22 that he will address this matter. This discovery comes more than a year after a federal court blocked a provision of the state’s anti-immigrant law, HB 56, requiring schools to determine the immigration status of enrolling students.

“In light of the climate of fear created in the wake of HB 56, it is particularly important to avoid creating the impression that immigrant children are unwelcome in Alabama schools,” said Caren Short, SPLC staff attorney. “This practice threatens to deny immigrant children their right to a public education by suggesting that a Social Security number is required to attend school. We are asking Superintendent Bice to take steps necessary to end this practice and ensure that immigrant students are not singled out or excluded from school.”

More than 30 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Plyler v. Doe that it is unconstitutional to deny a child present in the United States a public education based on his or her immigration status.

To ensure that enrollment in public school is not chilled, federal law requires that schools requesting a Social Security number must: (1) indicate that disclosing the number is voluntary; (2) provide the statutory or other basis upon which it is seeking the number; (3) explain how the number will be used.  

In August 2012, Bice sent a letter to all Alabama school districts emphasizing these requirements. Despite the letter, this practice continues across the state.

The SPLC’s investigation found only one district and one school that explain how the number will be used and only three districts and two schools that comply with the requirement of indicating that disclosure of a Social Security number is voluntary.

“These findings suggest a pervasive practice of requesting Social Security numbers in violation of clearly established federal law,” according to the letter. The SPLC also found that this practice extends to magnet schools and international baccalaureate programs. For example:

  • Mobile County’s magnet school program application requests the applicant’s Social Security number – even noting with an asterisk that it is required. It also requests the Social Security numbers of the applicant’s siblings.
  • Huntsville’s Academy for Science and Foreign Language asks for the applicant’s Social Security number, marking it as required information.
  • In Montgomery County, the application for the elementary schools magnet program asks for a Social Security number, as does the Baldwin Arts and Academics Magnet School.
  • The Jefferson County International Baccalaureate School requests a Social Security number on its enrollment form.

This trend is particularly troubling since these schools and programs represent many of the top public school programs in Alabama. Deterring immigrant students from enrolling at these schools is tantamount to denying them access to the best quality education available in the state. The letter urges the superintendent to take “prompt and decisive action” before families are discouraged from enrolling their children in public schools for the upcoming academic year.

The chilling effect of enrollment practices that create the impression that immigrant students are unwelcome can be seen in a May 2012 Department of Justice letter to the Alabama Department of Education. That letter reported that Hispanic student absences more than tripled after the passage of HB 56, which required schools to determine the immigration status of enrolling students.

The Department of Justice letter noted that even after this section of the law was blocked, its chilling effect continued to diminish access to and quality of education for many of Alabama’s Hispanic children.