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Pulitzer Prize Winner Joey Kennedy: HB 56 is a “Cruel Law, Punitive, and Overreaching”

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While members of our team were down in Alabama last week, we swung by the Birmingham News to meet up with editorial writer and columnist Joey Kennedy, who wrote about the organizational response to HB 56 last Sunday.  He interviewed us, and we interviewed him in a sort of cross-pollination of thoughts on what the HB 56 immigration law meant for Alabama.  Kennedy is a longtime resident of the Yellowhammer state, a professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and an assiduous critic of the state immigration law.  We traded stories, discussed ideas, and shared our hopes:

“It’s all the worst of Alabama stereotype,” Kennedy told us, describing HB 56.  “It is a cruel law, it is punitive, and it is so far overreaching.”

According to Kennedy’s columns, “illegal immigration” was a non-issue in Alabama before HB 56 passed.  There are only about 100,000 undocumented immigrants in-state, making them roughly 2% of the state population and ranking Alabama 36th out of 50 in states with the greatest undocumented population. 

Yet the state passed the nation’s harshest and farthest-reaching immigration law, a measure so unforgiving that it requires schools to report on their students’ legal status and punishes Good Samaritans for aiding, transporting, or abetting undocumented immigrants.  Why did the state use a sledgehammer to crack a nut?

Kennedy called the law a “distraction.”

“We have all kinds of problems in Alabama, real problems that need addressing,” he said.  “Fiscal, structural, infrastructural problems are what we should be thinking about.  And instead we go off on diversions.”

Anti-immigration laws have been proliferating across the nation, spreading to Georgia, South Carolina, and North Dakota since Arizona passed its landmark SB 1070 bill last year.  But the Alabama legislation is particularly harsh; Kennedy explains that this is due to Alabamians’ reluctance to view undocumented immigrants “as real people.”

“You can’t treat them like real people,” Kennedy said, “because then it becomes a different issue.  Then you have to consider feelings.  [Alabamians] just want to look at it as an abstract problem.”  State residents just want to see the undocumented as people who are “in a drug cartel and a gang, has one of the Attorney General’s weapons, is on welfare and Medicare, and spends every evening in the ER.”

Unfortunately, unlike other states that have passed anti-immigration laws, Alabama has a particularly dark and violent history of racism and intolerance, meaning that HB 56 cannot simply exist in a vacuum.  On one side, the law’s opponents note the parallels between the struggle against HB 56 and that of the Civil Rights Era.  The law’s supporters reject this comparison, saying that HB 56 is anti-undocumented immigrant, not anti-Hispanic, meaning the law is not racist.

“That’s bunk,” Kennedy said.  “The rhetoric is the same.  ‘Illegal is illegal’; during the Civil Rights Era it was ‘the law is the law.’”  The people who are being harassed in Alabama are “always people who looks a certain way, and that is racist…Governor Bentley says that there’s not a racial component to [HB 56], and they can say it all they want, but what does it [the law] do?”

Ultimately, Kennedy said, the ultimate hope for HB 56 is for the Supreme Court to strike it down, because “having fifty state laws dealing with immigration” creates “serious foreign policy problems.”

In any case, Kennedy will be keeping up his own personal crusade against the law—despite readers who have begged him to write about something else.

“I could write about this now until I retire,” he said, “because there’s so much involved in this issue that we need to tell people.  I want to find different things to write about every day, but I’ll write about some of the same things again.  Saying something once isn’t enough to stop this law.  You have to keep saying some things until they sink in.”

Watch an excerpt of our video with Kennedy below: