Ala. Immigration Law Worries Latino Parents

With a tough immigration law in effect in Alabama, worried Hispanic parents are meeting with school officials. They fear for themselves and their children.

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GUY RAZ, host: Alabama's new immigration law has only been in effect for a week. But already, some immigrants have packed and left for other states. One place where their absence is being felt - in public schools.

As NPR's Debbie Elliott reports now, at the start of the week, more than 2,000 Hispanic students didn't show up for class.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN)

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: The hallways of Foley Elementary School are less crowded these days.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN)

ELLIOTT: Since a federal judge left intact much of Alabama's immigration crackdown, 25 Hispanic students have withdrawn, another 40 plan to by the end of the week, and dozens of others have been absent. That's nearly a third of the south Alabama school's population of students for whom English is a second language. Principal Bill Lawrence says those who did come to class were afraid.

BILL LAWRENCE: We had large numbers of our Hispanic children coming off the buses, coming in, in tears and crying and in fear. And their main fear was, is mama going to be home when I get home?

ELLIOTT: Then he says rumors started flying - were buses were deporting kids? Were immigration officers going through school files? Did students have to reveal whether their parents were legal? There's a lot of confusion over what Alabama's new law really means.

Governor ROBERT BENTLEY: Well, it concerns me if they're not coming to school out of fear. I mean, we're not trying to frighten people.

ELLIOTT: That's Republican Governor Robert Bentley. He says the law doesn't bar the children of undocumented residents from attending class, but simply requires schools to record the immigration status of any new students who enroll.

BENTLEY: The teachers are not the enforcers of the law. And we want children to go to school. All they're going is getting a head count of who is in this country legally or not. But it's not to keep them from going to school.

ELLIOTT: But that has been the effect in schools like Foley Elementary, where the number of students taking English as a second language had grown from just two children in 1997 to 223 students this year. To quell some of the fear and misperceptions, Principal Lawrence met with a gym full of Hispanic families last night.

LAWRENCE: Your children are safe and your information is safe.

ELLIOTT: But even after the session, fears remain about a part of the law that requires police to check the immigration status of suspects if there's a reasonable suspicion they're in the country illegally. If they don't have papers, they can be jailed indefinitely. Undocumented landscaper Jose Hernandez is worried.

JOSE HERNANDEZ: It's hard to say, something (unintelligible). What's going to happen? We should all move out. We ain't got no choice. I don't want to leave my kid here. Who's going to take care of them? Nobody take care of the kids like parents.

ELLIOTT: His five children are U.S. citizens. The two oldest are honor roll students here at Foley Elementary.

HERNANDEZ: They're scared, they're crying. They don't want to eat. It's not just for us. You know, because they think about on his friends. My little girl say she crying the other day 'cause she thought - she don't want to see her friends anymore.

ELLIOTT: Foley is a small town in Baldwin County in south Alabama. The county has one of fastest growing Hispanic populations in the state - up more than 200 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census. Immigrants come here to work on farms, in seafood processing and in the tourism industry. But as they flee, the question is who will fill those jobs?

DEBBIE ELLIOT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Baldwin County, Alabama.

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