03/09/2012

Civil Rights Activists, Reenacting 1965 March, Urge Repeal of Alabama’s Anti-Immigrant Law

Marchers from across the country will descend on Montgomery, Ala., today to rally at the state Capitol. It’s the culmination of a march that began in Selma days earlier, retracing the steps of the historic 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march.

Like the courageous civil rights activists of nearly a half century ago, the marchers will be calling attention to the ugliness of racial intolerance. When they arrive at the Capitol, they’ll be urging Alabama lawmakers to recognize the basic human dignity of all people – by repealing the state’s unjust anti-immigrant law, HB 56.

The modern-day segregationist policy of HB 56 is rolling back some of our most important civil rights achievements and is returning Alabama to its dark past of racial hatred and division.

As they promised, the law’s proponents have made life a nightmare for immigrants and all Latinos across the state. Every day we see firsthand the chaos and devastation this unconstitutional law has created.

Immigrants have been forced to live without running water for more than a month at a time, refused emergency medical care and even denied the wages they earned. One day laborer told the SPLC that her boss pulled a gun on her after she asked for her pay.

This law has emboldened hateful anti-immigrant sentiment and unleashed a brand of vigilantism, leading some Alabamians to believe they can cheat, harass and intimidate Latinos with impunity. It can be seen in the stories Latinos shared in the SPLC’s recent report, Alabama's Shame: HB 56 and the War on Immigrants. Lawmakers can repeat it all they want, but the mantra of “if you’re legal, you don’t have anything to worry about” simply doesn’t ring true.

Tell Carmen Gonzalez of Foley that she doesn’t have anything to worry about. Gonzalez discovered a note in her vehicle’s floorboard telling her to “Go Back to Mexico.” Someone dropped it in the vehicle, apparently after noticing she had left a window cracked. Carmen is a Latina. She’s also a U.S. citizen.

Tell Enrique Corral that he doesn’t have anything to worry about. A cashier in suburban Birmingham singled him out to provide an “American ID” for a simple purchase. When the cashier didn’t ask the woman behind him for an “American ID,” the cashier told Corral that was because she could tell the woman was American. Corral is Latino. He’s also American – a U.S. citizen, born and raised in Texas.

These consequences were easily foreseeable.

This law was forged within a legislative debate rife with stereotypes, misinformation, incendiary rhetoric and bigotry. The Senate sponsor, Sen. Scott Beason, told supporters at a public meeting that they needed to “empty the clip” to “deal” with immigrants. The House sponsor, Rep. Micky Hammon, routinely conflated “Latino” with “illegal immigrant.”

If the law’s key sponsor can’t differentiate between ethnicity and immigration status, lawmakers shouldn’t be shocked when other Alabamians don’t either. And they shouldn’t be surprised that after lawmakers spewed anti-immigrant rhetoric in the House and Senate, some residents see HB 56 as a license to harass and discriminate against Latinos or people they perceive to be undocumented immigrants.

But it’s not just Latinos who are feeling the pain.

Alabama’s farmers are hurting too. Last year, they watched crops rot in the fields. Many farmworkers, regardless of the immigration status, fled the state rather than live under a cloud of suspicion. Farmers are beginning to plant crops for this year, not knowing whether they'll have the workers to tend and harvest them.

Alabama’s economy is also at risk. One recent study shows the state and its communities stand to lose tens of thousands of jobs, billions in economic activity each year and as much as $1 million each day in needed tax revenues.

Earlier this month, the Association of Departments of Family Medicine canceled a conference in Mobile, saying the law threatens the personal sense of safety and security of its members – especially its Latino members. That cancellation is expected to cost the city up to $700,000 in economic activity. It has cost Alabama – a state that has prospered by attracting international companies – much more in terms of its image.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is fighting this law. We’ve succeeded in getting portions of this law blocked. Yesterday, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta temporarily blocked additional portions of the law. But other provisions of HB 56 remain intact. We still have a long fight ahead of us.

State lawmakers cannot sit back and wait for the courts. This law has created a crisis that harkens back to the bleakest days of Alabama’s racial history while threatening its future.

There must be meaningful change, because as long as HB 56 stands, it is a stain on Alabama.

Just like the trailblazers of the 1960s civil right movement, many brave people are standing against segregationist policies like HB 56. Instead of repeating the past and remaining staunchly on the wrong side of history, Alabama lawmakers should also take a stand for good. They should put an end to the humanitarian crisis by repealing HB 56.