Alabama's attorney general is questioning the U.S. Justice Department's legal authority to get enrollment information about all students in many Alabama school districts as part of its federal lawsuit challenging the state's tough new immigration law.
Attorney General Luther Strange sent a letter to the Justice Department on Wednesday asking to be told by Friday what legal authority the department had to get the information.
"Otherwise, I will assume you have none, and will proceed accordingly," the Republican attorney general wrote. He did not elaborate on his next step.
Alabama's interim school superintendent, Larry Craven, advised school superintendents to hold off on providing any information to the Justice Department until the department and the attorney general resolve their differences.
The Justice Department sent letters Monday to 39 school superintendents seeking lists that include the race and national origin of students, as well as whether English is their primary language. Justice Department attorneys also want the names of students who have withdrawn from school and the dates they left.
The Obama administration is concerned that the law enacted by Alabama's GOP-controlled legislature this year may discourage students from going to school. The agency wants the information to determine if further action is warranted.
Justice Department spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said the letter went to districts with significant Hispanic populations. Alabama has 132 school districts.
Federal courts have put on hold a portion of Alabama's law that requires schools to report the number, but not the names, of students whose immigration status is in question.
State Sen. Scott Beason, a Gardendale Republican who sponsored the law, said the Justice Department's letter shows the importance of compiling information. "They are asking for the same student information we tried to get. They are proving our point," he said.
The Justice Department's letter reminds school superintendents that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that schools may not deny a student access based on immigration status and that the Justice Department enforces civil rights laws.
Beason said the Alabama law only sought statistics and did not deny enrollment to any illegal immigrant.
Michael Sibley, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said the Justice Department went directly to city and county superintendents rather than going through the department. He said he's not aware of the Justice Department ever seeking lists of students' names before in Alabama.
He said schools would need to devote significant resources and staff time to meet the Justice Department's deadline of Nov. 14.
The state Department of Education released enrollment figures Wednesday showing that 34,220 Hispanic students were enrolled in Alabama schools on the 20th day of school, which was around Oct. 4 for most school systems. That was about a week after the immigration law took effect.
The enrollment figures showed the number of Hispanic students was up 960 from the same time last year, but they do not show how many left school between the time the law took effect Sept. 29 and when the enrollment count was taken.
The trends varied among systems with significant Hispanic enrollments. For instance, Baldwin County was down 50 from last year, but Marshall County was up 36.
The Hispanic enrollment represents 4.6 percent of Alabama's total public school enrollment of 736,339.