No mind should be wasted

Published 11:39 am Tuesday, June 28, 2011

As the well-known slogan of the United Negro College Fund states, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

I fear that we will waste the intellectual potential of many minds with the implementation of the recently passed Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection law. This time, however, it will not be the minds of young African Americans but those of the children of undocumented workers in Alabama. Among other things, this law states that undocumented students will be banned from attending public higher education in Alabama.

Most of the students this would affect will have already received a U.S. education. Federal law dictates that all children, regardless of immigration status, have a right to enroll in public elementary and secondary schools. Anything that prohibits or discourages their participation is a violation of federal law. The Beason-Hammon law also states that public primary and secondary schools must determine at the time of enrollment whether students are unlawfully present in the United States. This will definitely have a dampening effect on children of undocumented workers attending grade school, decreasing the likelihood that these children will be prepared for post-secondary education here or anywhere. In a survey conducted in Shelby County Schools, 3,143 students reported speaking languages other than English at home.

Of the more than 42 different languages spoken, 2,456 students reported speaking Spanish in their homes.

Although most of these are U.S. citizens or immigrants with appropriate visas, I would guess that some portion of these are undocumented. Even if only a small percentage of the more than 3,000 students are undocumented, that could mean that each year hundreds of students in Shelby County would be denied access to public higher education in the state where they live.

Not only is this ethically and legally questionable, but it is a loss of the investment of time and money our educational system has expended on these students in grades K-12. Although I agree there is a dire need to reform immigration law and practice in our country we should do it in a manner that raises the boats of all of those already in the country.

It seems to me that we should provide an avenue to citizenship for bright, motivated individuals who, through no fault of their own, are here without having gone through the proper channels.

Most have already become accustomed to our society and all pay taxes in one form or another. Rather than exacerbate a cycle in which the children of undocumented workers become members of an invisible, exploited and disenfranchised class, let’s work together in the future to develop reform that puts to best use all the human capital we have in the state while also protecting the country’s sovereign boarders.

Kimberly Barrett is the vice president of student affairs at the University of Montevallo. The views expressed here are her own and don’t necessarily represent those of her employer.