The US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] on Friday issued a letter [text] to Alabama's Attorney General Luther Strange [official website], declaring its authority to investigate potential violations of civil rights laws. The letter, authored by Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez [official profile], was in response to a letter the DOJ received from Strange on Wednesday, in which he questioned the legal authority [AP report] the DOJ had to compel enrollment data from Alabama school districts. Citing the duty of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department to investigate potential violations of civil rights laws that "protect educational opportunities for school children" and the complaints the DOJ has received regarding the state's controversial immigration law [HB 56 text; JURIST news archive], Perez declared that the US Attorney General has "express authority" to investigate and enforce non-discrimination statutes related to education. Perez also challenged Strange's ability to speak for the schools, writing that it was the DOJ's understanding "that you do not represent the school districts we have contacted. Please let us know if that understanding is correct, so that we may proceed accordingly." The correspondence between the DOJ and Strange stems from a letter sent earlier this week [JURIST report] by the former to each school district in the state as a reminder that they must provide equal access to public education for all children, regardless of their immigration status.
Last month, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit [official website] temporarily blocked [JURIST report] portions of the immigration law, including Section 28, which requires immigration status checks of public school students, and Section 10, which makes it a misdemeanor for an illegal resident not to have immigration papers. The ruling came in response to a motion filed [JURIST report] by the DOJ and a coalition of immigrants rights groups after a judge for the US District Court for the Northern District of Alabama [official website] twice refused to block the law [JURIST report] from taking effect. The DOJ argues that the "state regime contravenes the federal government's exclusive authority over immigration." Alabama state officials have defended the law [JURIST report] and argue that the state law is not preempted by federal immigration law and that the text reflects a "spirit of cooperation with the federal government." The state officials point out that the law contains mechanisms safeguarding against unlawful discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin and allegations suggesting provisions of the law would deter students from enrolling in school are speculative.