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Original Series on AL Immigration Law (Maribel Hastings)

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Below are the first two columns in a series on the Alabama anti-immigration law from Maribel Hastings, Senior Advisor of America’s Voice Education Fund.  These articles were originally published in Spanish on various outlets. The English-Language versions were published on Latino Voices Huffington Post. To reprint in English or Spanish, please credit the proper outlets. 

October 5, 2011

HB 56: American kids pay the consequences

Originally Published in Spanish on Univision.com and AOL Latino

Published in English on Latino Voices Huffington Post

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – The baby girl was born on October 3, weighing just 5 pounds 15 ounces. But just as she came into the world, her father, a dishwasher in a restaurant, was detained by immigration authorities, possibly to be deported.

The mother, who is 20 years old and also undocumented, lay in her hospital bed wondering what to do: wait a few months to see if the situation for immigrants in Alabama gets any better after it’s new immigration law, HB 56, came into effect, or simply return to her native Guatemala with her two children–both native-born American citizens.

“I don’t know how I’d do it. I just gave birth, I can’t just pick up and move. I don’t have anyone here. To stay here I need money so that we can pay rent and eat,” she said. Her 2-year-old son, also born a U.S. citizen, played in the hospital room.

“If there’s nothing I can do for my husband at this point, the only option I have is to go back to my country,” the woman said. She’s lived in the United States for five years.

Alabama immigration law HB 56, also called the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, requires that, if there is “reasonable suspicion” otherwise, law enforcement agencies must verify whether a person detained, arrested or stopped has a legal right to be in the U.S.

Among other provisions, it requires public school officials to verify if students are in fact illegal immigrants.

On Wednesday, federal judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn refused to block the enforcement of immigration law HB 56 while her decision to let key parts of the law stand is being appealed by the Department of Justice and civil-rights groups.

With this, fear continues to spread throughout Alabama’s immigrant community, as many have packed up and fled the state. Others prefer to weather the storm by staying as far underground as possible, leaving home only when strictly necessary. Still others have chosento take their children out of school, to avoid the risk that they’ll be asked about their immigration status–despite the fact that in theory, this provision is not supposed to apply to students who have already enrolled. Some undocumented or mixed-status families in Alabama are also choosing to notarize documents to grant relatives or friends legal power to decide what to do with their children–many of them U.S. citizens–if their parents are detained and eventually deported.

State Senator Scott Beason, one of the authors of SB 56, defended it in a meeting with supporters last month stating: “We crafted a bill that the vast majority of it mirrors federal law.” This week, in front of local farmers in northeast Alabama, he added: “My position is to stay with the law as it is.”

But the new law hasn’t just impacted the state’s undocumented immigrants. Their children, many of them native-born U.S. citizens, are also suffering the consequences of the state’s immigration policies, amongst the most severe in the country.

It’s been widely reported that many undocumented parents have already opted to take their children out of public school, because the family had already fled for another state or was about to do so.

The young mother in the hospital was accompanied by her neighbors: a young couple also from Guatemala and undocumented, with their three U.S.-citizen children. The husband has been living in the U.S. for ten years; the woman has lived here for eight.

Their story is the same one heard all over the state: they don’t dare drive because they’re afraid of being detained; they think twice before going to the market to buy food because they’re afraid of being detained; they’re afraid of going to the doctor because they’re afraid of being detained; they’re afraid to take their native-born U.S. citizen children to the doctor because they’re afraid of being detained. Even taking the kids to school has turned into a nightmare, they said.

“Our daughter is still going to school, but we’re thinking about taking her out. The thing is, she’s afraid to go. Anything you do can be an excuse for them to detain you–and if you don’t do anything, they’ll make something up,” the young father said.

The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (HICA) is getting bombarded with calls and appointments from immigrants looking for advice on all kinds of issues. The most frequent question: how they can grant legal power to relatives or neighbors to take care of their U.S. citizen children, or decide what to do with their property, if they’re deported, explained Vanessa Stevens, communications coordinator at HICA.

“I already have a notarized document giving temporary power of attorney to the godmother of my son–he’s just seven years old–to bring him to Mexico for me if I get deported,” another mother from Oaxaca, Mexico told me. She’s lived in Alabama for 11 years.

On Monday, five mothers–all of them white U.S. citizens–demonstrated in front of the federal district court in Birgminham against HB 56. They said that their partners and fathers of their U.S. citizen children, are all undocumented–and could be torn from their families at any moment. If this happened, they added, their children would no longer be able to live on the economic support of their fathers; they would have to seek public assistance instead.

“If you don’t want to pay for our children, repeal the law,” one of the mothers said.

All day, I heard stories like this, first-, second- and thirdhand, about the fears and uncertainty that HB 56 has generated–not just among adults but among children, and many of them U.S. citizen children at that. But the day ended on an ironic note. Listening to the radio, we heard a commercial about the importance of religion and family values. At the end of the commercial, the announcer asked: What would Jesus do?

EDITOR’S NOTE: The unnamed persons in this article requested anonymity to protect themselves and their families from risk of arrest.

Maribel Hastings

Senior Advisor, America’s Voice Education Fund


October 3, 2011

Sweet Home Alabama?

Originally published in Spanish in Univision.com and AOL Latino

Published in English on Latino Voices Huffington Post

WASHINGTON– After a disappointing verdict that left some of the worst provisions of Alabama’s immigration law HB 56 in effect, the federal government is finding itself ever more deeply entangled in a complicated legal thicket as it tries to figure out how to keep the list of states with their own immigration laws from continuing to grow. The clash of powers may advance all the way to the Supreme Court–exactly where the champions of these restrictive laws have been trying to get for the past two years.

In fact, this past Friday the Department of Justice appealed the decision of Alabama district federal judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn. A few days earlier, at an online discussion with Spanish media, President Barack Obama reiterated that the United States needs to avoid having a patchwork of 50 immigration laws–and therefore needs to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

But the debate over the wave of state immigration laws in the absence of such reform has turned into another blame game–while civil rights, our economy, and our moral fiber pay the price.

The federal government argues (correctly) that enforcing immigration laws is a federal matter. For their part, those promoting and defending these state laws say they’re acting because the federal government has failed in its responsibility to enforce the laws, and they see a need to fill the gap

However, as we saw with Arizona’s SB 1070–and even more with Alabama’s HB 56, which is “SB 1070 on steroids”–these state laws go much further than mere frustration with the federal government. Anyone can see that these laws are discriminatory and unconstitutional, not to mention racially motivated.

To try to combat undocumented immigration by trampling on constitutional rights and encouraging racial profiling, as these laws do, is shameful. Such tactics can affect everyone–including citizens and legal residents.

The tears and anxiety among U.S.-born Hispanic students in Alabama, afraid that their undocumented parents would be identified, detained, and deported, are absolutely unjustifiable. Univision News interviewed a young boy, Damián, who was scared because his mother was undocumented. He summed it up clearly:

“I wanted to be a biologist, but now that dream is meaningless. I’m an American citizen, but what use is that? My family is here, but I can’t be here without her, and they’re going to take her away from me.”

This is what the federal judge in Alabama green-lighted: one of the worst provisions in the law requires elementary and secondary schools to collect information about the immigration status of all new students and their parents. But even students who have already enrolled are now considering not coming to school anymore, out of fear of becoming the victims of discrimination or because their parents are undocumented. This provision violates the right of all children to get an education independent of their immigration status.

The law also permits police to ask for documents from anyone they suspect is undocumented, and invalidates contracts with undocumented immigrants–to keep them, for example, from finding housing.

Yes, it’s true that the federal government clearly has the power to make immigration laws. But it’s also true that Congress has failed in its responsibility to pass an immigration reform bill that would keep the Alabama nightmare from spreading like fire through dry grass. And so the Department of Justice has been reduced to putting out fires here and there.

It’s also true that the federal government–exactly because it hasn’t reformed federal immigration laws–has strengthened its relationships with state governments to fulfill immigration duties, with programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities. This has emboldened the politicians who use state laws like HB56 to push their anti-immigrant agenda.

Alabama has a long history of shameful conduct in the nation’s civil rights struggles. Heedless of its own history, it is tragically repeating it.

Maribel Hastings

Senior Advisor, America’s Voice Education Fund

America’s Voice Education Fund — Harnessing the power of American voices and American values to win common sense immigration reform.