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Child Watch® Column: "Tough Immigration Laws: Tough on Children"

Release Date: January 20, 2012

Marian Wright Edelman

Alabama has passed the toughest immigration enforcement law in the country. Now children born in the U.S.A., American citizens, are living in fear. Some children are afraid to go to school. According to Bill Lawrence, principal of Foley Elementary in Foley, Alabama, “Most of these kids are American citizens. American citizens attending American schools, afraid.” He continued, “A child in fear can’t learn.” Children in his school were terrified Mom and Dad would not be home when they got home from school.

The new law, HB 56, requires people to have proof of legal status for almost every interaction in their lives, and it’s already having dire consequences for many of Alabama’s children. As the Center for American Progress explains, “Alabama’s new ‘show me your papers’ immigration law is ripping apart families in the state.” More than half of the estimated 120,000 undocumented immigrants who live in Alabama—2.5 percent of the state’s population—live in ‘mixed status’ families. But consider the children: 85 percent of the children of undocumented immigrants live in ‘mixed status’ families, often meaning the children are citizens but one or more of the parents are not. The result is that thousands of Alabama parents and children now live in constant fear of separation.

Among its many requirements, HB 56 requires elementary and secondary schools to determine the immigration status of incoming students and their parents and authorizes the school to report them to federal authorities. As the head of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, put it, “Educators should not be put in the position of being immigration law enforcers. Teachers should be safety nets, not snitches—guardians, not guards.”

HB 56 requires police and some government officials to demand proof of legal status if they have “reasonable suspicion” a person may be in the country illegally, including during routine traffic stops or arrests, and criminalizes unlawful presence. It also makes it a felony for an illegal immigrant to conduct a business transaction with any governmental body in the state; nullifies any contract an undocumented person enters into, including applying for a loan or signing a lease; and makes it a crime for unauthorized immigrants to apply for or solicit work. Advocates and community members reported that hundreds of Latinos did not report to work or attend school when the law first passed, and hundreds of families fled the state.

The Department of Justice, civil rights and church groups all filed legal challenges after the law went into effect last summer. So far, federal courts have temporarily blocked several provisions of the law, including the provision requiring K-12 school officials to determine students’ immigration status and that of their parents, and the provision that makes it a crime for immigrants to fail to complete or carry an alien registration card. But the state of Alabama has been allowed to go forward with many other sections of the law. Now, as law enforcement agencies are clarifying procedures on what parts of the law to enforce and the law is being further reviewed in federal court, many parents and workers are not taking chances.

The Center for American Progress has created lists of the “Top 10 Reasons Alabama’s New Immigration Law Is a Disaster” for the state’s government, economy, community safety, public health, faith communities, rule of law, education, and families. They point out fear has led many parents to sign power of attorney documents to allow friends or family members to legally care for their children if they are deported. If parents are deported many U.S. citizen children may be forced into foster care, though “Alabama state officials themselves are concerned about the potential impact on the already overburdened state foster care system.” Shattered Families, a recent report by the Applied Research Center, noted that more than 5,000 children nationally who are currently in foster care have parents who have been detained or deported. The Center for American Progress also points out that when breadwinners are deported from mixed-status families “U.S. citizen spouses and children will have to take on additional jobs, potentially drop out of school, and seek additional social services just to keep the family afloat. The resulting cycle of potential poverty and despair is a prescription for instability and a detriment to the entire fabric of Alabama communities.”

They note some U.S. citizen children in mixed-status families are being forced to shoulder new burdens for their families, including taking over the driving and shopping if they have valid licenses. Of course, undocumented children are a target themselves, including many who were brought to the United States as infants or small children and have never known another home. The overwhelming sense of fear is apparent even among the youngest children, as school administrators like those at Foley Elementary know very well—and isn’t just limited to children in immigrant families. A Birmingham school counselor said, “My sixth graders of African American descent were asking me if they were going to have to go back to Africa. There is a fear factor out there that is written between the lines of the law that's having a chilling effect on Alabama classrooms.”

As one U.S. citizen son put it: “At school we were taught about the Civil Rights period. This is the same thing—it’s happening again. I make good grades, so does my brother. We are normally at the top of our class. I try my hardest to be good. The people making this law, they need to put themselves in our shoes and think about how they’re splitting families.” As a slight ray of hope, there is pressure mounting in the state to repeal HB 56 or parts of it in the state’s legislative session. The irony of an era of fear, repression, and profiling repeating itself in Alabama is not lost on many onlookers. For those who refuse to return to that era in Alabama or any other part of America, the time to speak up is now.

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Submitted by Good Karma at: January 23, 2012
When will we learn that caring for our children-all children- will make us a great nation. And hurting families and children will harm us all.

Submitted by Dr. Marsha at: January 21, 2012
As a pediatrician working in a Community Health Center on the border of Texas and Mexico, I witness this fear in our families on a daily basis. It is the air we are now breathing in our communities along the border. The streets are filled with Border Patrol vehicles. They roam the neighborhoods in SUV's and on bicycles. Helicopters can be heard over our rooftops. At the same time, we face violence and chaos on the other side of the border. We are seeing more and more children (U.S. Citizens who were previously living with their families in Mexico) being brought to the U.S. to stay with family members to escape the drug war. We have a Medical Legal Partnership in our clinic, Brownsville Community Health Center. It was recently honored by the White House and the Department of Justice as a "Champion of Change". The Medical Legal Partnership RioGrande Valley has seen an increase in guardianship cases from families torn apart, either bringing their U.S. children home to the United States, or torn apart in fear that a parent or grandmother may disappear at any moment. You are right. Children cannot learn in an atmosphere of fear. They will not grow to their fullest potential when the hormones of fear are destroying neurons in their growing brains. This flagrant violation of human rights as got to stop. We can be bigger than this. Unfortunately, it may take demonstrations on the scale of the Civil Rights movement in the 60's, when the children's marches captured hearts and changed minds in this nation. I am certainly not advocating that children march. But we all need to lift the stories of these children, our children, up for all to see and hear, as you do all the time. In our community of rich culture and strong families, we are losing our youth to depression and suicide because we could never find the courage to pass a dignified, just Dream Act. So, the children study and dream and behave well (so, they can make their parents and grandparents proud--and so they are not picked up by the Border Patrol), and they graduate. For what? They cannot get a job. Nor, can they travel north of the Border Patrol checkpoint 90 miles north. Most won't even venture downtown where Border Patrol are always stationed. Of those that have the funds to go to college, they still face the day of eventual reckoning. For what? This nation is abandoning its children. And all children should be considered sacred and to be protected. Thank you for your writings. It always brings me hope, and often makes me cry. Sincerely, Marsha R. Griffin, MD Director, Community for Children Brownsville Community Health Center Brownsville, Texas

Submitted by Jazz at: January 21, 2012
1963 all over again and Alabama,again, is leading the way to suppress minorities.

Submitted by rach at: January 21, 2012
I find this so demoralizing. Where is it all going to end?

Submitted by DAD at: January 20, 2012
Laws like the one passed in Alabama are bad for all children and for our country as a whole. It makes no sense to continue to believe that the ridiculous immigration laws we have had for too many years have in any way been beneficial for our economy, or our lifestyles. To make laws that actually intensify the negative effects what we have lived with for far too long is insane. It is long past time to approve the Dream Act which will benefit every person and every community in our country by allowing thousands of families to be vital participants in our failing social democracy.

Submitted by am at: January 20, 2012
I have a friend, 19 years in the US, three well fed, clothed and behaved American children who all excelled at school. Stay at home mom, super cute house. He gets pulled over in a sting operation on a Mexican social club and deported. We now have three children who get food, health care and financial subsidy from the government, who stay up crying all night because they miss their father, who when they do fall asleep do so on the floor in the one room the family lives in, their smiles and laughter are gone, their grades have dropped and I fear for their future with their mom having to work so many hours to just scrape by. They would love to all move to Mexico to be with their dad, but there is no work, he can't support them there. He has to be in by 8pm every night because of the drug violence in his small town, he can't protect his family there. The kids would all be put behind in school while they learned to read and write in Spanish. No one is going to willing send their children to starve or worse.

Submitted by A. Merican at: January 20, 2012
I am in favor of HB 56 which requires people to have proof of legal status for almost every interaction in their lives.