02/2012

A Car is Bought, Then Taken Away

Isabel

Isabel and her family saved every penny possible to buy a car, even forgoing new sneakers for her two sons.

Eventually, they drove from their home to a dealership in northern Alabama where they had previously bought a car. They decided on a blue 2004 Ford Explorer. They paid $1,500 down and would pay $65 a week until the $6,400 sport utility vehicle was paid in full.

Their hard work and sacrifice had paid off.

Unfortunately for Isabel and her family, as undocumented immigrants in Alabama, they would learn the car they had worked so hard to buy could be taken away. It was September, the same month portions of HB 56 would take effect across the state.

One day, a tow truck pulled up to Isabel’s home. She hadn’t missed a payment. She had no idea why the dealer would take the SUV. She called him, and after offering up flimsy excuses, he told her the real reason: He could no longer sell to “illegals” because he might lose his business license.

Alabama’s new law does not, in fact, prohibit businesses from selling merchandise to undocumented immigrants. But it does say that contracts are not valid when one party is undocumented. That opens the door wide for unscrupulous businessmen.

The dealer offered to return the vehicle—if Isabel presented a Social Security card and a green card. She didn’t have them. He refused to return the money the family had already paid. They lost nearly $3,000.

“It affected me so much because I was seeing the racism in these people,” said Isabel, 37. “They robbed this money that, with such sacrifice, I was saving to be able to have a car.”

Isabel and her husband drove to the dealership several times over the next few weeks to see about the vehicle. Some of the mechanics told Isabel that they thought what the dealer had done was wrong, but they couldn’t do anything about it. Eventually, the dealer made a different offer to Isabel: She could pay the full price of the vehicle and it would be returned. That wasn’t possible. After several attempts, Isabel and her husband gave up.

Isabel has since heard of other undocumented immigrants enduring the same ordeal. Though undocumented immigrants are often accused of stealing jobs and other benefits from citizens, Isabel said her family was meeting their responsibilities. They had insurance, license tags—everything they needed, except a car.

“So who is robbing who? They stole from us. They did—the citizens, not the undocumented people.”

Her husband, Santiago, believes HB 56 has only emboldened some people to harass Latinos and discriminate against them.

“There has always been some racism in this country, but since the law [was enacted] it’s like the people that are a little racist can open up more,” he said.

Video by Sarah P. Reynolds