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HB 56: Indignation

by Mahwish Khan on 11/01/2011 at 4:26pm

HB 56 Alabama Immigration human rights for allThis is the eleventh column in a series on the Alabama anti-immigration law by Maribel Hastings, Senior Advisor with America’s Voice Education Fund:

 We’ve been reporting on the unwelcome national and global attention Alabama is receiving for its immigration law, HB 56. Now it’s time to get indignant about the maltreatment Alabama’s immigrant community is suffering under the law, and the insensitivity they’re being shown by those who have convinced themselves the law only targets undocumented immigrants—rather than U.S. citizens, the state’s economy and, potentially, public health.

You can hear the indignation in voices like that of Jasmine Reyes. She was born in New York and is of Puerto Rican descent. She’s lived in Birmingham for 11 years, and now sees the effects of HB 56 in the community health clinic where she is the Director of Special Projects.

“Immigrants are afraid to come in. I started an initiative where we brought around the mobile unit to give people flu shots. We went to one community where people hadn’t gone out for a week, and found sick children and sick people. We treated over 50 people,” she said.

When the law went into effect, “about 20 parents came in to find their children’s medical records, because they were about to leave…We told them not to go, that we’d get help, asked them ‘How can you leave us alone here?’” she said. “I’m a citizen, but I have a passion for these people. We all have rights. The Constitution says ‘We The People;’ we’re people.” She’s signed power-of-attorney documents making her the legal guardian of nine children if their parents are detained or deported.

Are there children going without medical attention because their parents are afraid they’ll be detained? Doesn’t having dozens of people in a community go without medical care create the conditions for outbreaks that put everybody else’s health at risk?

To the governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley—who, ironically, is a doctor—these reports of the effects of HB 56 are just “stories.” “Those stories are anecdotal stories,” he told a reporter. “It’ll work itself out.” But the Associated Press quotes Jim McVay, spokesperson for the Alabama Department of Public Health, who says that “I don’t want to spread fear, but any time people are afraid to get medical care there are potential complications.”

I visited the health clinic where Reyes works, and what I saw was more than just a story. Rooms that are typically full of people seeking medical care were almost empty.

Or look at the indignation in Ashley, a native Alabaman married to an undocumented immigrant who came to the U.S. when he was 15 years old (he’s now 22). They have a son. They both work and pay taxes.

In order for her husband to start the process of getting legal status, he has to go to Ciudad Juarez. Once he leaves, he activates a “ten-year bar” from legally reentering the United States—so if he’s unable to get a waiver, they’re preparing for the possibility of moving to Mexico for good. These federal immigration laws that promote family separation have only been exacerbated by the state’s HB 56.

“We’re already set up here. I have a job with insurance. We have a two-year-old son together, with insurance…(My husband)’s hardworking, he pays his taxes,” Ashley told me. If her husband leaves the country, “there’s a possibility my son will have to go back on Medicaid, there’s a possibility I’ll qualify for food stamps again, and all these other things—I’ll have to have help with childcare—and then I’ll become a drain on the state again, because they deported my husband.

“They don’t think about separating families. They think, ‘oh, well, the whole family’s undocumented, so we’re just sending them all back.’”

Ashley works at a center for victims of domestic violence, and she explained that HB 56 has kept many immigrants from reporting their abusers to police for fear of being detained. She added that the construction company where her husband works is considering shutting down, since many of their immigrant workers have left Alabama. Neither of these are just stories.

The indignation burns in Joe, another Alabama native, who rents lots for mobile homes. Several of his undocumented tenants can’t pay taxes on their mobile homes because they don’t have documents. This isn’t just a story. One immigrant told me they wouldn’t accept his money because of his lack of documents—refusing money for the state budget, in the middle of an economic crisis. Joe confirmed it.

“They’re not allowed to pay their taxes because they don’t have a valid driver’s license. I think there has to be some way to get citizenship, especially if you’ve lived here for many years, with an established family,” Joe declared. His daughter is married to an undocumented immigrant.

Where is our indignation over what is happening in Alabama?

Where is the indignation when we keep hearing from Republican politicians who think it’s funny to propose putting an electric fence on the border?

When, a few months before an election year, politicians start to talk about proposing an immigration reform bill—as a way to highlight the “contrasts” between Democrats and Republicans on the issue?

Highlighting “contrasts” may save or hurt politicians, but it doesn’t do anything immediate to help immigrants.

Last century, the manifestations of racism and discrimination in Alabama were obvious—with segregation laws, lynchings, repression and violence against the African-American community. In the 21st century, the manifestations of racism and discrimination continue to be in the form of laws, like HB 56, whose effects of displacement, intimidation and terror aren’t just stories. They’re outrageous.

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