Alabama – On the Frontlines of the Nation’s Harshest Immigration Law

Editor’s Note: The battle over immigration is now being waged at the state level. Since Arizona’s immigration law SB 1070 went into effect one year ago, five states — Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah — have passed similar laws.

The Justice Department filed a challenge to Alabama’s immigration law on Monday, arguing that the Constitution prohibits state governments from creating a “patchwork” of immigration policies. Last year, the Justice Department filed a similar challenge to Arizona’s controversial SB 1070.

In June, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley signed into law the most severe immigration legislation in the nation. In addition to a provision requiring police to detain suspected undocumented immigrants, adopted from Arizona’s SB 1070, Alabama’s law HB 56 requires public schools to verify the legal status of students and their parents and criminalizes renting property to undocumented immigrants. The law, which is being challenged in court by a coalition of civil rights groups, is set to go into effect Sept. 1. But community leaders and journalists say the effects of the legislation can already be felt in their communities.

Alabama had the second-fastest Latino growth in the nation over the last decade, after South Carolina. The Latino population in Alabama grew 145 percent, from 75,830 in 2000 to 185,602 in 2010 according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

NAM interviewed community leaders and ethnic media journalists to learn the impact of these laws on the five states at the frontlines of immigration’s new battlefield.

Cecillia Wang, Managing Attorney, ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project (San Francisco, Calif.)
Alabama’s HB 56 has already had a terrible impact on communities in Alabama. Alabamians are confronting the real possibility that there will be racial profiling in every aspect of their lives, from housing to voting. Many people of color are limiting their everyday activities out of fear of the police. Immigrant families are weighing the risk of enrolling their children in school. The impact is felt most strongly by people of color, but every American should be concerned because these laws create a police state in which officers can demand to see your papers and check into how you live your life. U.S. citizens who want to give their neighbors a ride to church or to a doctor’s appointment will face criminal prosecution for harboring an immigrant. Alabama’s law is part of a wave of coordinated anti-immigrant and anti-civil rights legislation around the country. But the civil rights community is stepping forward to make sure that all of these laws are stopped in their tracks. As part of a broad civil rights coalition, the ACLU has brought suit against every one of these laws. So far, federal courts have stopped every one from going into effect, and we are confident that we will stop Alabama’s HB 56 too, and preserve our core American civil rights and constitutional values.

Jairo Vargas, Editor, Latino News (Trussville, Ala.)
I am in Albertville, an hour-and-a-half from Birmingham, which is an important city for Latinos in Alabama. Many people here work in poultry, and at this moment many people are not working because they don’t have documents. Some of the poultry factories are closing or are operating two shifts when they used to be operating three shifts. Many people in this area pick tomatoes and this week they need to pick the tomatoes but people are not working in the farms because they don’t have documents. And if nobody picks up the tomatoes, there is going to be a big loss.

For my paper, I have been interviewing owners of businesses and asking what will happen when this law goes into effect. Everybody calls me about this. One family went to New York because they can’t work here, another family went to Chicago because they can’t go to study here.

Alabama was a good state before this law. Many people in the Latino community have been living here for years, but what happened is that now many of them can’t go to work, can’t transport their children to school. Every section of it is a ‘no’ for the Latino community.

Andrew Turner, Senior Staff Attorney, Southern Poverty Law Center (Montgomery, Ala.)
Since 2005, the Southern Poverty Law Center has devoted a portion of our work to immigrant justice and we currently have more than 10 attorneys working on immigrant justice cases. We think there is a growing problem of targeting and discriminating against immigrants who are a new minority in Southern states.

We filed the class action lawsuit against HB 56 on behalf of people like Matt Webster, a resident of central Alabama who is the adopted father of children without status and who, because of HB 56, would be criminally liable for transporting his children or harboring them in his home. When you look at the case of Mr. Webster, you see that the legislature is working with very blunt instruments. Immigrants are such a large part of society that it is not possible to target undocumented immigrants as a group without impacting the broader population. Defending the rights of the most marginalized has always been fundamental to our work at SPLC and this law is a renewed attack on marginalized members of our society.

Cheryl Eldridge, Executive Editor, Birmingham Times (Birmingham, Ala.)
The bill is very controversial. I don’t like the police interfering with people’s livelihood, but at the same time I support measures that would stop people from coming into the United States illegally. I don’t like it if it discriminates on race because most minorities were born in the United States so I personally think that it does affect us, but at the same time most of the people who are immigrants come to the United States to get a piece of the ‘American pie’ while many people in the United States are still struggling.

I have not seen much interest in this issue among the African-American community. A lot of people right now are interested in the bill only if it affects them, and I haven’t received any editorials thus far. That is what I look for when you are discussing different bills, which is strange because our newspaper targets minorities.

Scott Douglas, Executive Director, Greater Birmingham Ministries (Birmingham, Ala.)
Christianity, Judaism and Islam all have tenets welcoming the stranger and doing no harm to the stranger. It is important to our religious doctrine to exhibit radical hospitality to the alien and the stranger. We have a free clothes closet at our ministry and offer free food, and the only thing we ask is for proof of low income, to show us you’re broke. But now we’re seeing a drop-off of people we presume to be Latino immigrants. They are scared we wont be able to help them; not everyone knows the law doesn’t take effect until Sept. 1. I heard of one family leaving for another state because they ‘don’t want to be in a state that hates them.’ We are working in cooperation with other organizations of faith in Alabama to protest this bill and we are part of a statewide petition campaign getting ordinary people to ask for the repeal of HP 56. We hope to have the courts declare it unconstitutional, but at the same time we are collecting signatures to have the legislature repeal the law. It really criminalizes faithful activities.

Caitlin Sandley, Lead Organizer, Community Engagement and Education, Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (Birmingham, Ala.)
The Latino immigrant community is relatively new in the South. Part of what that means is that there is just not that much infrastructure for organizing in Alabama. For example, there are not any Latino elected officials in Alabama, which is a huge challenge for doing advocacy work. HICA was founded in 1999, which was when the Latino population exploded but there were no services for Latinos. Currently, HICA is the lead plaintiff in the challenge of the bill filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Arizona-style legislation has been in the hopper since 2008, but when the legislature flipped in 2010 and when the bill passed in Arizona, it gained traction here. We are already hearing of businesses that are laying off employees that may not have authorization to work in this country, business that have cold feet.

The good news is that because of success in the courts in places like Georgia, Utah, Arizona and Indiana, people are saying, ‘OK, well let’s wait and see how this plays out.’ Because HB 56 is so comprehensive, it really encompasses all the other challenges that immigrants already encounter on a daily basis.

Cleretta Blackmon, Editor, Mobile Beacon (Mobile, Ala.)
Our paper is a 68-year-old newspaper that is African-American oriented, but we cover all issues, not just in the Mobile area but state and national news as well. We are a community-based newspaper, so we’re interested in what is happening in our city and within our state. In Baldwin County in lower Alabama, there is a lot of farm area where immigrants go out and harvest things like strawberries and peanuts and you can’t get other people to do it. The government does not want them to be hired and is trying to put penalties on businesses and people who hire immigrants, and these people are complaining that this bill prevents them from working. The economy is so bad anyway, and if you cannot get people to harvest your crops, you are going to lose money and that is a terrible waste. For instance, the fishing industry, which is a big industry, needs workers. The immigrants get the work done in half the time of other people and they cost less money. They take the jobs that other people don’t want to do.

We will be covering this issue in our paper and there may be some editorial content. There is interest in this bill among the African-American community just as in the mainstream. I am against bills that prevent immigrants from working because we don’t want the bill to prevent African Americans from working.

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