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Gutierrez: “Alabama Is Fertile Ground for Implementing Discretion Policy”

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hb 56 signThis is the seventh column in a series on the Alabama anti-immigration law by Maribel Hastings, Senior Advisor with America’s Voice Education Fund:

Originally published in Spanish in Univision.com and AOL Latino

EUFAULA, Alabama – Congressman Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) called on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to halt deportations of immigrants without criminal records who  have been detained under Alabama law HB 56 while the courts consider the Department of Justice’s suit to declare the law unconstitutional. He also asked DHS to begin implementing its new policy of using prosecutorial discretion to consider which deportations to prioritize in the state.

“There are people right outside asking if (the regulations) are just a piece of paper, a way of trying to pacify the anxieties of the immigrant community, or whether they’re a real instrument, a real tool of justice. Here in Alabama we can determine if it’s an empty piece of paper–or if it’s a piece of paper full of justice for our community, and they won’t deport anyone picked up by the police and turned over to la migra (under HB 56),” the congressman told America’s Voice.

He has also sent a letter with the same requests to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director John Morton.

Gutiérrez came to Alabama to participate in a series of events. His first stop was here in Eufaula, a city an hour and a half from Montgomery, where he spoke at the NAACP Alabama State Conference Convention. The Alabama NAACP, the leading African-American organization in the United States, passed a resolution denouncing HB 56 for being discriminatory and encouraging the use of racial profiling.

The State NAACP presented a united front with the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ACIJ) against the harshest immigration law in the country.

“This is a mean-spirited law and we have to join forces and defeat it,” said Bernard Simelton, president of the state NAACP. “We’re doing everything we can to get the law repealed…to demonstrate to our politicians that the law is unconstitutional.”

Gutiérrez, chairman of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) and a national leader in the movement for immigration reform, expressed gratitude for the role the African-American community has played in the battle for civil rights for minorities—a fight, he added, that has been centered around Alabama and the South, and led “by great Americans like the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth,” the prominent civil-rights leader who died recently in Alabama.

“And all of us who today are fighting for civil rights, particularly those of us in the immigrant-rights movement, owe a debt of gratitude to those who came before us,” Gutiérrez said.

“When a group is persecuted, is discriminated against, as is happening today to immigrants, we are all at risk,” he said. “This law isn’t just anti-immigrant, but anti-Alabama,” referring to the effect the law has had on citizens and legal residents, its threat to the state’s economy, and the fact that it has reversed the advances the state has made on issues of equality and civil rights.

Afterward, the congressman stressed the significance of the NAACP’s support in the fight to reverse HB 56.

“As Latinos and as immigrants, the first thing we have to do is thank all the members of the NAACP who gave their lives so that one day we would have a Civil Rights Act and a Voting Rights Act, and ask that as an institution they defend our people, as we will do for them,” he said.

“You don’t have to teach the NAACP what hate is, what discrimination is, what an abusive law looks like. They know it in their bones, and their reaction is to defend those who have no one to defend them. They have a long history of fighting for civil rights and human rights, and that’s why we’ve come here today.”

The congressman, together with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, took a central role in pressuring the Obama Administration to make the changes it has recently announced to exercise discretion in deportations, focusing on serious criminals and allowing officials to use their discretion in deciding how to schedule removals.

The irony is that under Alabama’s HB 56, police have the authority to ask anyone they come in contact with about their immigration status, as long as there is “reasonable suspicion” for doing so. Thanks to this, many immigrants detained in Alabama may end up placed in deportation proceedings because they were apprehended under a law whose constitutionality is being challenged by the Department of Justice.

Gutiérrez thanked the Department of Justice and President Obama for intervening to try to block HB 56, but added that “it seems contradictory and ironic to me that on one hand, the government is defending immigrants in court, and on the other hand, it’s letting those who embrace hate in Alabama complete their mission…You can’t on one hand denounce the laws in court and on the other hand satisfy the very point of the law, which is deportation,” Gutierrez maintained.

Alabama, he said, is fertile ground for implementing the discretion policy in prioritizing deportations. “The administration can implement, in a clear and unequivocal fashion, (the policy) that immigrants should be deported if they are criminals,” he concluded.

Later that day, the congressman headlined a rally in Birmingham against HB 56, where he pledged to return to Congress and report what he’d seen firsthand of the effects of HB 56 on Alabama’s immigrant community and declared that it is time for politicians to raise their voices to stop the law in Alabama and keep other states from following in its footsteps.

“If you’re a Hispanic congressman from Los Angeles, it’s time to raise your voice. If you’re a Hispanic congressman from New York, from Florida, from New Mexico, if you’re a Democratic congressman who believes in justice…it’s time to raise your voice in solidarity with the people from Alabama right now,” Gutierrez said at the rally, which was convened by radio station La Jefa.

“I’m going to insist that my colleagues in Congress come together to denounce this discriminatory law, because to stay silent is to allow them to act with impunity against our community, and we cannot tolerate that.”

Whole families came to the event together. So did those who have stayed in the state on their own, as their relatives have left for other states or their countries of origin.

“It’s encouraging that he’s come to us and lifted our spirits, because he shows up with all this energy and he’s teaching us that not all is lost, that there are still things we can do,” said one undocumented immigrant.

One undocumented mother with her young U.S. citizen daughter declared that “there are times that we feel completely without strength, but I thank God that every time more people come to join us.”

Read Maribel Hastings’ other columns on Alabama here.