Undocumented Alabamians remain locked out of public universities

Ethan Henry, Staff Reporter

Immigration is one of the few topics that constantly dominate headlines, including recent news stories of Biden’s plan to expand Title 42 expulsions to Mexico of immigrants from Cuba, Venezuela, Haiti and Nicaragua. When immigration is being debated, the humanity of the people involved is often treated as an afterthought to its political and economic implications. In fact, the continuing impact of Alabama’s own harsh immigration laws serves as a demonstration of what happens when the political stakes take precedence over ethical ones. 

Alabama is one of only three states that prohibit undocumented students from attending public colleges and universities, the others being South Carolina and Georgia. In Alabama, these restrictions are due to a section of Alabama HB 56, a 2011 state law that places severe restrictions on immigrants. Although many provisions of the law were struck down, the restrictions on higher education for undocumented immigrants have remained in place.  

Heath Grimes, superintendent of Russellville City Schools in Russellville, Alabama, said many exceptional students are unable to realize their full potential in higher education. Within Grimes’ school district, he estimates that around 28% of students are English learners, meaning they are learning to speak English as a second language, and although it’s impossible to know how many students are undocumented, the number is almost certainly higher than in other parts of the state. 

“Why do we all want our community to have a higher level of education?” Grimes said. “Because it makes for a better community. When we’re saying that somewhere between 28 and 50% of our kids are limited to a high school education, what are we doing to our community? What are we doing to our state?” 

One element of this issue that Grimes highlighted was the lost potential of many bright students. In addition to reducing the opportunities for students, the restrictions are also impractical from the perspective of the school. 

“We have elementary teachers that are working incredibly, unbelievably hard to educate these students, to get them to the point that they are flourishing in our schools. They become valedictorian, salutatorian, top 10 in their class, and then we say they can’t go to college,” Grimes said. “It doesn’t make any sense that we spend that money in K-12, but we forbid them to go to college in our state.” 

Grimes used the example of a former Russellville student who was forced to apply to colleges out-of-state. Grimes said this student “wasn’t asking to go for free. [They] just wanted to enroll and pay in-state tuition.” Instead, the student is now forced to go to a more distant school, which is made even more difficult because they can’t apply for a driver’s license. According to the American Immigration Council, there are 55,000 undocumented immigrants in the state of Alabama, and they pay $54.1 million in federal taxes and $11.4 million in state taxes. Public universities, such as The University of Alabama, receive a majority of their funding from state tax revenue. 

Steven Bunker, an associate professor of history at the University, explained some of the political context underlying immigration restrictions. 

“If you notice who’s sponsoring it [immigration bills], you rarely ever will find any Republican representing a rural district doing this. They’re all from more sort of affluent or comfortable suburban districts. Their reps do that because they don’t have skin in the game, because rural areas need the labor,” Bunker said. 

Most districts incorporate a variety of areas and interests, making clear judgements difficult about whether they are strictly rural or suburban, but the two state legislators who sponsored Alabama HB 56 have a history of questionable conduct. Scott Beason, formerly an Alabama state senator representing District 17, in the same year that HB 56 was signed into law, was caught on tape referring to predominantly Black customers of a gambling hall as “aborigines.”  

Micky Hammon, formerly a state representative for the 4th district, was the other sponsor of HB 56 and pled guilty to mail fraud in 2017. 

Although undocumented immigrants contribute large amounts in tax dollars in addition to their labor, anti-immigrant sentiment still exists in many parts of Alabama.  

Unfortunately, limiting the educational attainment of undocumented students will only exacerbate Alabama’s ranking among the states with the worst educational attainment. In the midst of Alabama’s ongoing “brain drain,” many believe it does not make sense to prohibit many Alabamians from getting an affordable in-state higher education. Ana Delia Espino, the executive director of the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, said that the organization formed in response to the passage of HB 56. 

“Alabama as a state, our communities suffer because we lose those talents. We lose those skills. A lot of our towns are becoming sleepy towns or they’re dying because instead of our population growing, it’s declining, and everybody’s leaving small-town Alabama. … We’re not keeping our talent here,” Espino said. 

Although HB 56 has created a difficult situation for undocumented students, ACIJ has been proactive in informing the community and forming relationships with private universities in Alabama. 

“We try to be proactive and share the information because not many people know that this is a barrier. We have become closer with private universities, and we try to collaborate and help people financially prepare for those expenses, because those universities are much, much more expensive than your public universities,” Espino said. 

Despite the frustration involved, Espino maintains a positive outlook about the future and possibilities for undocumented students. 

“There have been a lot of losses, and it’s really easy to be disappointed. However, we’ve had a lot of documented and undocumented youth go to college, get degrees. I know some people who are in master’s programs now. They’ve done great work and have been very successful and are staying in Alabama because Alabama is home,” Espino said.  

Mariana Rios Nava, president of the University’s Hispanic Latino Association and a junior majoring in psychology, came to the United States from Mexico at age 13.  Although she has a different story than many immigrants who come without documentation, she has a personal understanding of the immigration process. 

“Just the application process for citizenship is a thousand dollars, and that literally does not ensure anything from happening. And it’s even harder if you came without documentation because they already don’t want you here,” Rios Nava said. 

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the non-refundable naturalization filing fee, including a biometric fee, is $725. 

“When HB 56 came out, it was and still is one of the harshest anti-immigration laws in the country, and so I think it hinders the potential of our community in the United States. The Latino community is one of the fastest growing minority groups in the United States, and everybody knows that,” Rios Nava said. “We have so much to offer when we’re here, but if we’re negated from having so many opportunities, there’s only so much we can do, and we remain in a position where we cannot grow.”