Alabama's Shame: HB 56 and the War on Immigrants

Alabama's HB 56 is a self-inflicted wound—the product of short-sighted lawmakers unable to see beyond the most immediate political opportunity. Though the impact of similar anti-immigrant laws in Arizona and Georgia clearly foreshadowed its legal and economic fallout, HB 56 was passed with little regard for the hardships those states have experienced.

The result is a crisis that harkens back to the bleakest days of Alabama’s racial history. It is a crisis that could have been avoided—one that certainly must end now.

A family goes 40 days without running water because their “papers” are not in order.

A health clinic refuses to treat a young girl due to her immigration status. Days later, she undergoes emergency surgery.

A man brandishes a gun to day laborers, then refuses to pay for their work.

A Latina born and raised in the U.S. discovers she’s suddenly regarded with suspicion — even enduring taunts of “Go back to Mexico.”

These are just a few of the stories told by Latinos who are living under the cloud of Alabama’s newly enacted anti-immigrant law, HB 56.

Like the Arizona law it was modeled after, Alabama’s law grants police the authority to demand “papers” demonstrating citizenship or legal status during routine traffic stops. But it does much more.

In Alabama, where undocumented immigrants comprise just 2.5 percent of the population, lawmakers added a slew of cruel provisions designed to create a law that, in the words of a key sponsor, “attacks every aspect” of an undocumented immigrant’s life.

The result was the harshest anti-immigrant law in the nation—a law that virtually guarantees racial profiling, discrimination and harassment against all Latinos in Alabama. HB 56 attacks not only “every aspect” of an immigrant’s life in Alabama—but also basic human dignity and our most fundamental ideals as a nation.

The victims are mothers, fathers and children—often people working hard to overcome crushing poverty and build a brighter future against long odds. Thousands of children—many of them U.S. citizens who have every right to be here—are now living in fear of losing their parents and are afraid to go to school.

Shortly after the law took effect, the Southern Poverty Law Center and its allies established a hotline for residents to report how the law affected them. Almost 1,000 calls poured in during its first weekend of operation. By late January 2012, more than 5,100 calls had been received. This report contains stories reported to the SPLC through the hotline and other channels. They illustrate the devastating impact HB 56 has had on Alabama Latinos, regardless of their immigration status. The stories also illustrate that HB 56 has unleashed a kind of vigilantism, leading some Alabamians to believe they can cheat, harass and intimidate Latinos with impunity. These consequences were easily foreseeable.

The law was forged within a legislative debate rife with stereotypes, misinformation, incendiary rhetoric and bigotry. The Senate sponsor told colleagues they needed to “empty the clip” to deal with immigrants. The House sponsor, Rep. Micky Hammon, cited the increase in Alabama’s Latino population to illustrate the growth of the state’s undocumented population. Hammon’s conflation of “Hispanic” with “illegal immigrant” during the legislative debate was so egregious that a federal judge cited it in a recent opinion. 

When legislators supporting HB 56 can’t distinguish between ethnicity and immigration status, it should be no surprise the law brings the chaos and confusion described in the following pages. As the Latinos whose stories are told here can attest, HB 56 has been a dangerous, failed experiment—a humanitarian disaster.

It is not a mere reflection of federal immigration law, as some supporters suggest. Federal immigration law does not require school officials to question students about their immigration status. It does not invalidate contracts based on a person’s immigration status. And it does not make it a crime to give someone a ride. Yet HB 56 contains these provisions and more.

Whether through ignorance or design, HB 56 sends a destructive message of intolerance to Alabama’s Latino residents and sullies the state’s reputation in the eyes of the world. It gives a nod and a wink to the worst prejudices harbored by some residents.

The message is being heard loud and clear.

“Hateful people are hateful no matter what, but with this law they feel more empowered,” Enrique Corral, a U.S. citizen in Alabama, said of the new attitude adopted by some residents. “If I used to just spit on you, now I’m going to spit on you and kick you when you’re down.”

Photo by Sarah P. Reynolds