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Ten Things to Know About Alabama's New Immigration Law

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On September 28th, 2011, the most sweeping anti-immigration law in the country went into effect in Alabama.  The law, HB 56, has already had harsh and sweeping consequences—hurting not only undocumented immigrants but legal residents, native-born U.S. citizens, and the state’s reputation on the national stage.  HB 56 has created a climate of hostility for Hispanics and immigrants that has caused many of them to flee the state or lock themselves in their houses, while devastating Alabama’s agriculture and construction industries and creating massive bureaucratic hassles for citizens who are just trying to get their vehicle tags renewed.  While the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Alabama to stop enforcing two provisions of the law on October 14th, the damage they caused may be irreversible—and the rest of the law remains in effect.  What’s truly shocking, though, is that not only have the law’s defenders failed to express concern about its consequences on Alabama families, but they’re proud of them—and say the law is working as intended.

Here are ten things to know about the new Alabama anti-immigration law:

1.      Children are too afraid to risk going to school.  One provision of HB 56 forces teachers and school administrators to check not only the immigration status of all new students, but also the status of their parents.  While the 11th Circuit Court ruled on October 14th that Alabama had to temporarily stop enforcing this provision, it was in full effect for over two weeks of classes and is still a part of Alabama law.  Some schools interrogated previously enrolled students as well; the Birmingham News reported that one school even called Hispanic students into the cafeteria and asked them to publicly disclose the legal status of their parents.  And Hispanic students weren’t the only ones who felt targeted: school counselor Roseann Rodriguez told Huffington Post that “My sixth graders of African American descent were asking me if they were going to have to go back to Africa.”  As of October 7th, at least 2,300 children were missing from Alabama schools.  All of these children are constitutionally guaranteed a right to an education; many of them are native-born U.S. citizens whose parents happen to be undocumented. 

2.      Humble workers and families with strong ties to Alabama are being treated like criminals.  HB 56 forces police officers in Alabama to ask anyone they stop who they think might be undocumented to prove their immigration status.  Furthermore, it nullifies all contracts with undocumented immigrants, and makes it a crime for any branch of state government to do business with them, leading to new verification provisions affecting all Alabama residents.  It has created a climate of fear for Latinos in the state, who feel like “suspects” every time they leave their home.  As Maribel Hastings of America’s Voice Español reported, “One young father from Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico told me, through tears, that his 12-year-old son, who is undocumented, has always been an honor student who recently won a school trip to go to the Space Museum in Huntsville. He didn’t go, because he was afraid the police would detain him.  ‘We don’t have much time to think it over … maybe we can get our affairs in order here in two or three weeks and see what our options are, maybe moving to another state, or straight to Mexico,’ the father said.  Some families don’t dare to leave the house, even to get basic items like food.  The church deacon said that he knew people who had gone days without leaving to buy groceries; he had offered to bring them food himself.  Those who do leave the house do so knowing the risk they take.” One woman interviewed even said that her U.S.-born children had the flu, but she was afraid to take them to the doctor.

3.      Families are being denied access to basic necessities, like water.  The Guardian newspaper reported on a warning posted in the small town of Allgood, Alabama: “The poster is mildly worded, but carries a very big punch. ‘Attention to all water customers,’ it begins. ‘To be compliant with new laws concerning immigration you must have an Alabama driver’s license…’  And then comes the hit: ‘… or you may lose water service.’  The warning, posted in the offices of a public water company in the small town of Allgood in Alabama, is the most graphic illustration yet of the draconian new immigration law coming into effect in the state.”  That’s right, because of the law, families are being denied basic utilities, like water, unless they can show papers.

 4.      The climate of hostility is even targeting legal immigrants and Hispanic citizens.  The law is encouraging private citizens to harass people based on the color of their skin, in a chilling repeat of the darkest days of Alabama’s history. The Alabama Press-Register told the story of 18-year-old Jessica Pineda: “She now rarely leaves home, except to go to work. She stays in Alabama because it’s where her family stays.  ‘I was born in the United States,’ she said. ‘I know I have my American rights.  But if I go outside people are going to think I’m illegal. I get scared because we have the color.’  And NPR interviewed a 16-year-old native-born U.S. citizen who reported getting teased by classmates at school, who jeered, “Are you going back to Mexico, man?” “It kinda makes me angry,” he told NPR, “but I can’t do anything about it. I can’t help the way I was born, the color skin that I have.”

 5.      Police are confused about how to enforce the law, and worried that they will have to divert resources from serious crimes.  Several outlets have reported that there is widespread confusion and uncertainty among police about how to enforce the law.  After the law was supposed to go into effect, Randy Christian, chief deputy of the Jefferson County Sheriff Department, told Reuters that his officers “have to get some answers on how we actually enforce it and how we can do so without involving racial profiling.” Boaz Police Chief Terry Davis, who heads a group of 365 Alabama police chiefs, told the Associated Press, “We just need to know what to do without getting everyone in trouble. We’re all sort of confused right now.”  Birmingham Police Chief A.C. Roper has been a forceful opponent of the law itself. He expressed concern that training for the law would strain his department’s budget and told a Birmingham TV station, “As chief of Birmingham, illegal immigration is not in my top ten. Homicides, robberies, rapes, burglaries, car theft—those are the sort of things that are in my top ten. Not whether the person who’s over here painting houses is here illegally. But the state has shifted their priorities. That’s one of the concerns I have with the law. Because as the chief police officer for this city, I should set the priorities for this police department.”

 6.      The exodus of Hispanics and immigrants is threatening local businesses and destroying the economic base of whole communities.  As reported by the Alabama Press-Register, one Mexican restaurant owner in the small town of Robertsdale estimated that his customer base has shrunk by 75% – from 100 customers a day to 25.  A baker estimated his had shrunk by 90%.  One family told a reporter that they were considering closing their restaurant and moving to Mississippi to find business.

 7.      Farmers and construction business owners are already facing disaster.  Business owners are watching their Hispanic and immigrant workforce disappear—not only undocumented immigrants, but legal immigrants as well. Housing developer Bill Brett told NPR, “We’ve had many employees leave that were legal. Maybe a family member wasn’t legal, or maybe a close friend or relative.  Or maybe they’re just scared of being targeted and they’re just uncomfortable staying in this community and working here.”  The Associated General Contractors of Alabama estimate that about one-fourth of the entire construction work force has already left the state.  The agriculture industry is faring even worse: it’s harvest time, and their crops are rotting in the fields.  One family farmer told CBS News that the labor shortage would cost his family around $150,000 this year.  Shortly after HB 56 went into effect, according to the Associated Press, 50 desperate Alabama farmers met with one of the law’s sponsors to complain; when he dismissed their complaints, and told them “The law will be in effect this entire growing season,” one farmer replied, “There won’t be no next growing season.”

 8.      Bureaucracy overrun – Alabamians are waiting in out-the-door lines to get their vehicle tags renewed.  Because of new ID requirements under HB 56, lines for annual vehicle tag renewal are so long that officials at the Birmingham DMV have had to add portable toilets, according to the Associated Press.  The added burden has thrown state employees and citizens so far behind schedule that the state is allowing citizens whose tags expired in September to get a 20-day extension on renewing them.  Even after the extension was granted, NPR reported that visitors to the Birmingham office had to arrive at 4:30 to get in front of the line, while those who arrived after the office had opened had to wait in line for six hours.

 9.      African-American and civil rights leaders are outraged that Alabama is repeating a bleak chapter of its history on civil rights and race relations.  U.W. Clemon, the former Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama and a career civil-rights activist, told Jose Antonio Vargas, “In some very serious ways, [the initial ruling to uphold most of the law] was mistaken.  Ours is a country basically that is based on immigration.  We are a nation of immigrants. Only two categories of Americans don’t fall into the category of immigrants, and that is the Native Americans – the Indians – and the black Americans.  We’re the only ones who didn’t seek to come here.  Everybody else has to look to Europe, or Asia, in terms of their background, in terms of their ancestors coming to America, most of them without having to go through all kinds of hoops to become Americans.  They just showed up, and worked hard…[Under HB 56] the Hispanic man is the new Negro. It’s a sad thing to say, and I think it reflects reality.”  And Congressman John Lewis, a close ally of Dr. Martin Luther King, told a school audience in Georgia,  “Here in Georgia, in my native Alabama, some other parts of the South, you hear this free debate about immigration.  We don’t want to go back.  We wanna go forward as a nation, as a people.  We all came from some other part of the world…so we all are immigrants ourselves.  Dr. King said on one occasion, ‘We should learn to live together as brethren and sisters.’”

10.  and the law’s champions are delighted. They say everything is going according to plan.  When POLITICO asked Republican Congressman Mo Brooks of Alabama about “unintended consequences” of HB 56, like the mass absences of his state’s Hispanic children, Brooks replied: “Those are the intended consequences of Alabama’s legislation with respect to illegal aliens.  We don’t have the money in America to keep paying for the education of everybody else’s children from around the world.”  Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach, one of the architects of Alabama’s law and Arizona’s SB 1070, told a conference that driving Hispanics out of the state was just an efficient way to enforce the law: “People are picking up and leaving…You’re encouraging people to comply with the law on their own.  Nobody gets arrested.  Nobody spends time in detention.  We don’t expend resources in removal proceedings…I’d say that’s a good thing.”  And Alabama’s U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions called the exodus of Hispanic families from the state “a rational response” to the law.  When talk radio host Laura Ingraham asked Sessions, “Do you think it’s bad that all these Hispanic kids have disappeared from the schools?”, Sessions replied, “All I would just say to you is that it’s a sad thing that we’ve allowed a situation to occur for decades that large numbers of people are in the country illegal, and it’s going to have unpleasant, unfortunate consequences.”

For more information on the effects of the Alabama immigration law, visit:

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