07/14/2011

Alabama’s Anti-Immigrant Law Punishes Many – Not Just the Undocumented

When Pastor Ellin Jimmerson pronounces a couple husband and wife this September, she could be breaking Alabama law.

Under the state’s new immigration law, performing a marriage involving undocumented immigrants would be considered encouraging undocumented immigrants to stay in the state – a crime under the law that takes effect Sept. 1. Jimmerson has performed marriages for undocumented immigrants in the past as part of her ministry. She doesn’t plan to stop.

This September, when Matthew Webster provides food and shelter for his adopted sons, he could also be breaking Alabama law. Webster, a native Alabamian, is in the process of adopting two young boys, both undocumented immigrants. It will take two years for the boys to obtain lawful status. In the meantime, Alabama law would criminalize Webster for being a father to them.

And if anyone from the group AIDS Action Coalition drives an undocumented immigrant to a medical appointment this September, they could be breaking the law. Transporting an undocumented immigrant is a crime under the new law – even for a group that helps people living with HIV/AIDS. The fact that human suffering doesn’t stop when a visa expires is, apparently, irrelevant.

Last year, when a group of Alabama lawmakers pledged to get tough on immigration, they promised to “bring the fight to the home front.” It was no surprise that the law they passed – HB 56 – copied the main elements of Arizona’s infamous SB 1070, which is being challenged in court as unconstitutional. That was enough for the Southern Poverty Law Center and its allies to file a federal lawsuit last week to stop Alabama’s law from taking effect.

But, as these examples show, Alabama’s law does even more. It not only brings the fight to the home front, it barges into the lives of countless Alabama residents and attacks human compassion, religious belief and even family. It criminalizes even the most innocent aspects of everyday life for countless Alabama residents – regardless of immigration status.

Alabama lawmakers may argue that law-abiding residents have nothing to fear.

They are wrong.

Ask Fiseha Tesfamariam. This native of Eritrea came to the United States as a refugee in 2010. He wants to learn English to ease his transition and plans to enroll in an English-as-a-Second-Language class at an Alabama community college. But under this law, he will be blocked from taking the class – or any class – at a state college or university.

Even though Tesfamariam is living in the United States legally, as a refugee he is not a permanent resident and does not possess a nonimmigrant visa. Under the Alabama law, that’s enough to bar him from attending the class.

Juan Pablo Black Romero’s life may also be disrupted.

Romero, who is originally from Ecuador, came to the United States on a student visa and is working on his doctorate. He is allowed to apply for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) from the U.S. immigration service. Federal authorities require EAD applicants to apply for jobs before receiving the document. But if Romero does that in Alabama, he would be prosecuted under HB 56 for being an “unauthorized alien” soliciting work.

It’s appalling that such a law could be passed in the United States, but we shouldn’t be surprised given the rhetoric espoused by some Alabama lawmakers. One lawmaker warned that “illegals in this country are ripping us off” and that “our house is going to burn down” if the state relies on the federal government “to put this fire out.” A co-sponsor of the law told an audience that when it comes to fighting illegal immigration, lawmakers should “empty the clip, and do what has to be done.”

When a law is forged with such incendiary rhetoric, we should not be surprised that lives and rights get trampled in the process. This law isn’t about punishing undocumented immigrants. It’s about punishing all immigrants. It’s about punishing anyone who dares associate with someone who looks “foreign.” It’s about punishing diversity in Alabama.

That’s why the SPLC and its allies have filed this lawsuit on behalf of Ellin Jimmerson, Matthew Webster, Fiseha Tesfamariam, Juan Pablo Black Romero and the countless others who will be punished by this vicious, misguided law. It is why we will not stop until this law is defeated and the rights of all Alabamians are protected.