BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Hispanic students have started vanishing from Alabama public schools in the wake of a court ruling that upheld the state's tough new law cracking down on illegal immigration.
Education officials say scores of immigrant families have withdrawn their children from classes or kept them home this week, afraid that sending the kids to school would draw attention from authorities.
There are no precise statewide numbers. But several districts with large immigrant enrollments -- from small towns to large urban districts -- reported a sudden exodus of children of Hispanic parents, some of whom told officials they planned to leave the state to avoid trouble with the law, which requires schools to check students' immigration status.
The anxiety has become so intense that the superintendent in one of the state's largest cities, Huntsville, went on a Spanish-language television show Thursday to try to calm widespread worries.
"In the case of this law, our students do not have anything to fear," Casey Wardynski said in halting Spanish. He urged families to send students to class and explained that the state is only trying to compile statistics.
Police, he insisted, were not getting involved in schools.
Victor Palafox graduated from a high school in suburban Birmingham last year and has lived in the United States without documentation since age 6, when his parents brought him and his brother here from Mexico.
"Younger students are watching their lives taken from their hands," said Palafox, whose family is staying put.
In Montgomery County, more than 200 Hispanic students were absent the morning after the judge's Wednesday ruling. A handful withdrew.
In tiny Albertville, 35 students withdrew in one day. And about 20 students in Shelby County, in suburban Birmingham, either withdrew or told teachers they were leaving.
Local and state officials are pleading with immigrant families to keep their children enrolled. The law does not ban anyone from school, they say, and neither students nor parents will be arrested for trying to get an education.
But many Spanish-speaking families aren't waiting around to see what happens.
A school worker in Albertville -- a community with a large poultry industry that employs many Hispanic workers -- said Friday that many families might leave town over the weekend for other states. About 22 percent of the community's 4,200 students are Hispanic.
"I met a Hispanic mother in the hallway at our community learning center this morning, where enrollment and withdrawal happens. She looked at me with tears in her eyes. I asked, `Are you leaving?' She said `Yes,' and hugged me, crying," said the worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not an authorized spokeswoman.
In Russellville, which has one of the largest immigrant populations in the state because of its poultry plants, overall school attendance was down more than 2 percent after the ruling, and the rate was higher among Hispanic students.
There's "no firm data yet, but several students have related to their teachers that they may be moving soon," said George Harper, who works in the central office.
Schools in Baldwin County, a heavily agricultural and tourist area near the Gulf Coast, and in Decatur in the Tennessee Valley also reported sudden decreases in Hispanic attendance.
The law does not require proof of citizenship to enroll, and it does not apply to any students who were enrolled before Sept. 1. While most students are not affected, school systems are supposed to begin checking the status of first-time enrollees now.
The Obama administration filed court documents Friday announcing its plans to appeal the ruling that upheld the law.
The state has distributed to schools sample letters that can be sent to parents of new students informing them of the law's requirements for either citizenship documents or sworn statements by parents.
In an attempt to ease suspicions that the law may lead to arrests, the letter tells parents immigration information will be used only to gather statistics.
"Rest assured," the letter states, "that it will not be a problem if you are unable or unwilling to provide either of the documents."