MONTGOMERY, Ala. - The U.S. Justice Department says Alabama's immigration law is having a significant impact on the state's Hispanic students, according to a letter sent to state Schools Superintendent Tommy Bice.
The letter from the department's Civil Rights Division says that a study of state data has concluded that the immigration law has caused Hispanic students to drop out or skip school in larger numbers than before the law's passage.
"Our investigation suggests that the legislation overall has had continuing and lasting consequences in the education context," wrote Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez.
In a statement, Bice wrote that provisions of the immigration law that caused the increase in absenteeism and withdrawal has been put on hold by the court. That provision required students to present a birth certificate or other form of identification in order to enroll.
"Any negative effect on student attendance or withdrawal was minimized by applying this process to all students and only those enrolling after Sept. 1, 2011, which was several weeks after the official beginning of the school year," Bice wrote in an emailed statement.
The letter states that many Hispanic students interviewed by the Justice Department reported staying home or dropping out of school out of fear they would be questioned about the immigration status of themselves or their families.
The letter goes on to state that the immigration law has diminished the quality of education for Alabama's Hispanic children.
"(The law has) resulted in missed school days, chilled or prevented participation of parents in their children's education and transformed the climates of some schools into less safe and welcoming spaces for Hispanic students."
The Southern Poverty Law Center released a statement praising the Justice Department's investigation.
"We are disappointed, but not surprised, that the Alabama Department of Education's own data shows the civil rights of many children in our state are being violated, and we are thankful the federal Civil Rights Division is continuing its investigation," said Mary Bauer, legal director for the SPLC.
"Even current legislation, the so-called reform bills, fails to make enough substantive changes to the law and these students' access to school will continue to be chilled."
A bill currently before the state Legislature would make changes to the immigration law - including preventing school officials from asking children about their parents' place of birth or immigration status.
Gov. Robert Bentley's spokeswoman, Jennifer Ardis, wrote in an email that Bentley supports those changes and is committed to upholding the essence of the immigration law.
"However, the governor does not believe that teachers or school administrators should be acting as immigration enforcement officers, and the revised version of HB 56 (the bill that carried the immigration law) that the governor supports would clarify that point," she wrote.