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Alabama AG: Feds show no legal authority for records

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) -- As Alabama's attorney general and the U.S. Justice Department continued their back-and-forth over the state's immigration law, the federal agency said Friday that it wants enrollment information from public schools because it has received complaints about possible discrimination under the law, but the state's top lawyer said that's not a legally sufficient reason.

The Justice Department says it's evaluating the potential for civil rights law violations.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said the federal officials haven't shown him any legal authority that would require schools to turn over extensive information.

On Wednesday, Strange had challenged the Justice Department to show what legal authority it had to seek lists of student enrollments and withdrawals from 39 school systems that have significant Hispanic populations. Strange had sought an answer by noon Friday and he got it.

In it, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez questioned the attorney general's legal authority in connection with the schools.

"Separately, it is our understanding that you do not represent the school districts that we contacted," Perez wrote.

"Your understanding with respect to our representation in the immigration litigation is correct," Strange wrote back.

However, Strange said he is defending the state of Alabama and the state school superintendent against the Justice Department's legal challenge of Alabama's immigration law. The law, described by the governor and many others as the toughest in the nation, includes a requirement for schools to check the legal status of students when they enroll and report the statistics to state education officials. Federal courts have put that portion of the law on hold.

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 Justice Department attorneys also wanted the names of students who have withdrawn from school and the dates they left, plus information about unexplained absences.

Opponents of the law have cited instances of harassment by fellow students, unwarranted questioning by teachers, and withdrawals by students for fear their parents will be arrested for taking them to school.

Perez said in his letter that as the department receives additional information, it and other federal agencies "will be evaluating the potential for violation of federal laws in Alabama, including civil rights laws."

Alabama's attorney general said the Justice Department should share the information with him because his office "is determined to see that our school children are protected from unlawful activity."

Alabama's interim superintendent of education, Larry Craven, has advised superintendents to do nothing until Strange and the Justice Department resolve their differences.

In an interview before receiving the Justice Department's response Friday, Strange said he wrote his letter because Alabama and the Justice Department are involved in litigation, and he is concerned the department's attorneys are not abiding by the rules that lawyers in court cases are supposed to follow when seeking information. He also said Alabama's law follows federal court rulings by allowing anyone to attend school regardless of legal status.

The Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice is criticizing the attorney general for seeking to block information gathering by the Justice Department.

"Attorney General Strange has placed politics over ensuring that our schoolhouse doors have been open to all children, regardless of where they -- or their parents -- were born," said the Rev. Angie Wright of Birmingham, a member of the coalition's steering committee and pastor of Beloved Community United Church of Christ.

Eric Mackey, executive director of the School Superintendents of Alabama, said Thursday the Justice Department collects statistical data from school systems every two years for compliance with civil rights laws, but it doesn't include any names. "I've never seen them collect data like this before," he said.

Justice Department spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said the names and personal information will be kept private.

Some of the systems contacted by the Justice Department were: Daleville, Gadsden, Russellville, Limestone County, Baldwin County, Marshall County, Chilton County, Barbour County, Decatur, Enterprise, Trussville, Opelika, Oneonta, Cullman, Athens, Shelby County, Tarrant, Guntersville, Oxford, Etowah County, Leeds, Jefferson County, Tuscaloosa, Baldwin County, Mobile County, Montgomery County, Boaz, Albertville, Huntsville, Henry County and Clay County.