updated 9/30/2011 5:52:19 PM ET 2011-09-30T21:52:19

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Education officials say scores of immigrant families have withdrawn their children from classes or kept them home this week, afraid that sending the kids to school would draw attention from authorities.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.

Story: Ala. police to enforce America's 'strongest' immigration law

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.

'Tears in her eyes'
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."

Associated Press writers Steve Gutkin in Atlanta and Phillip Rawls in Montgomery contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Alabama enacts strict immigration law

  1. Closed captioning of: Alabama enacts strict immigration law

    >>> alabama now has the strictest immigration law in the country. two upheld bay federal judge . i'm joined by maria kumar, msnbc contributor. good morning.

    >> good morning. thanks for having me on.

    >> what's this mean? what's this new law mean?

    >> it is actually -- "new york times" called at this time cruelest immigration law across the country meaning it is incredibly strict. one is if you are a student you have to actually show your immigration papers. number two, you have to -- if unfortunately -- walking around and you have to have -- immigration papers at all times, one thing people don't realize is that the 50 million latinos, 60% of them are u.s. born. how are they going to get federal immigration painers to demonstrate they truly are american citizens? part of the problem, too, is, unfortunately, it creates really -- actually has a huge backlash against labor and big business and also a lot of different parts of alabama that are -- are there trying to rebuild after the hurricane because they have a labor shortage that people are literally fleeing just out of fear being racially profile.

    >> yeah. alabama republicans, though, argue their goal has always been to make sure alabama jobs and taxpayer funded resources are going to legal alabama residents.

    >> and one, it should. it also -- because it is suching a strict law, law enforcement themselves were against this legislation. clergy was against this legislation. agriculture businesses were against the legislation. because you can't -- you don't know just by looking at someone whether they are or not. it shows to the administration they need to pass comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level . and congress has to sit down and roll up their sleeves because otherwise the economies are going to be devastated and families will be separated but more importantly, we are going to actually create a police state that alabama has been trying to shy away from for the history of the civil rights movement . almost as if they haven't learned anything. learned their lesson. hypocrisy with republicans. they say they don't believe in government regulation but here they are trying to decide who should be work and who the big business should be hiring.

    >> maria, thanks so much.

    >> thank you.


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