A tough new Alabama law targets illegal immigrants and sends families fleeing

October 8, 2011

Trailer by trailer, yard sale by yard sale, and pew by empty pew, a poor but tightknit immigrant community on Alabama’s breezy Gulf Coast is rapidly disintegrating.

This time it is not a tornado or hurricane uprooting families and scattering them to the winds. It is a new state law, largely upheld last week by a federal district judge, that seeks to drive illegal immigrants from the state by curtailing many of their rights, punishing anyone who knowingly employs, houses or assists them, and requiring schools and police to verify immigrants’ legal status.

Other states, including Arizona, Georgia and Colorado, have passed similar laws in the past several years in a growing trend by state legislatures to crack down on illegal immigration within their borders in the absence of comprehensive federal action. But Alabama’s new law is the toughest passed so far, and it is the only one to withstand federal lawsuits and other legal challenges, allowing it to take virtually full effect.

Across Alabama, news of the court ruling has swiftly spread panic and chaos among trailer parks and working-class areas where legal and illegal immigrant families from Mexico and Central America — as many as 150,000 people, by some estimates — live and work at jobs their bosses say local residents largely refuse to do.

In Foley, a sprawling seaside resort town where hundreds of Hispanic immigrants work in restaurants, sod farms and seafood industries, many families last week were taking their children out of school, piling their furniture into trucks, offering baby clothes and bicycles on front lawns for sale and saying tearful goodbyes to neighbors and co-workers they might never see again.

“This is the saddest thing I have experienced in my 18 years as a priest,” said the Rev. Paul Zoghby, who ministers to a large Hispanic flock at St. Margaret of Scotland Church. “We’ve already lost 20 percent of the congregation in the past few weeks, and many more will be gone by next week. It is a human tragedy.”

After evening Mass on Thursday, families mingled worriedly in the church lobby, asking how to get help and debating where to flee.

“I have a cousin in Nashville. Maybe we’ll try there,” said a muscular construction worker, holding a sleeping infant in his arms.

Others said they planned to head for Texas or Florida, where the laws are not as strict. None wanted to return to Mexico, where they said wages are pitifully low and violent crime is a constant threat.

Tough choices

Many such families have legal and illegal members, which presents them with wrenching choices. One illegal couple’s daughter, born in the United States, just won a college scholarship; another such couple’s daughter was recently engaged to a local boy. Both decided they would flee Alabama anyway, reluctantly putting family unity and safety before individual opportunities.

“This law has shattered all our dreams,” said Maria, 35, a house cleaner and mother of two from central Mexico, weeping and clutching at her husband for support in a church meeting room. An illegal immigrant, she asked her last name not be used. “We do the jobs no one else wants to do. We pay taxes. We do not harm anyone. Now the government says they don’t want us here, but we have nowhere to go. All the doors are closing on us. We can’t even drive a car without being afraid. I cannot believe this is God’s will.”

The new law passed the state legislature in June after an unprecedented Republican sweep of both chambers last year and the election of a Republican governor, Robert Bentley. Amid a sustained economic slump and rising unemployment, this political majority finally gave longtime advocates of a crackdown on illegal immigrants the votes they needed.

Sponsors of the measure are unapologetic about its tough provisions. The law makes it a criminal offense for an illegal immigrant to register a car, pay a utility bill or rent an apartment, and it similarly penalizes anyone who hires, shelters or signs a contract with an illegal immigrant.

As its backers see it, the law is a long-overdue panacea that will open up thousands of jobs to struggling Alabamans squeezed out of the market by cheap illegal labor. They also hope the law — after surviving legal challenges by the Justice Department and other groups — will pressure the federal government to overhaul its immigration system.

“I have no doubt that this is the best thing for the long-term economic health of our state and no doubt that this is what a majority of the people of Alabama wants,” said state Sen. Scott Beason, chief sponsor of the measure. “We have almost 10 percent unemployment, and we need to put our people to work. I understand there are concerns, but the law needs to be given a chance.”

Despite such assertions, the law has aroused condemnation and concern from an assortment of Alabamans, including some unusual allies. White farmers, including conservative Republicans, complain that their field crews have fled and that their crops will rot on the vine. Black church and civil rights leaders, whose communities suffer from high unemployment, decry the law as a reprise of Alabama’s racist history.

“These Republican politicians are running for office on Christian values, but this law is in blatant disregard of Christian values. It is bringing back the shameful and ugly past of our state,” said the Rev. Roger Price, pastor of Birmingham’s iconic 16th Street Baptist Church, which was bombed in 1963 during the civil rights conflict.

“I admit we have an immigration problem,” he said, “but this is not the way to solve it.”

Local government officials in heavily Hispanic communities have also expressed worry, confusion and indignation over aspects of the law. Some police officials privately say they are uncomfortable about how far they should go in checking drivers’ legal status. Some school officials are upset about the effect the law has had on Hispanic parents who fear they will be deported while their children are in class.

William Lawrence, the principal of Foley Elementary School, said frightened immigrant families withdrew 25 students last week, even though all the children were U.S. citizens. He said the Hispanic community was swept by rumors that parents would be arrested when they came to collect their children. Many families asked teachers and others to act as their children’s emergency drivers or legal guardians.

“We are doing all we can to reassure parents that their kids are safe, and things have calmed down some, but this was extremely wrong,” Lawrence said. “I hope our lawmakers did not do it deliberately. They won, because now people are leaving. But there is no reason to create such terrible fear of parents being separated from their children.”

Alabama, a largely agricultural state, has long relied on seasonal Mexican farm laborers to harvest peaches, tomatoes and other crops under temporary guest worker visa programs. What has made the past decade different, officials said, is a surge of illegal immigrants who have put down roots, taken permanent jobs at low wages and drained public health and education budgets. Officials estimate the state spends about $280 million per year on public services for illegal immigrant families.

Republican lawmakers said they want to bolster the national guest worker program to return to an orderly legal flow of foreign field laborers, but a number of farm owners interviewed last week said that the program was cumbersome and inadequate and that they could not find local American workers willing to toil long hours in hot fields.

“There is a lot of heavy lifting and manual labor, and you are out there in the sun and the rain. It is just not attractive to Americans,” said Mac Higginbotham, an official with the Alabama Farmers Federation.

The group represents about 40,000 farmers and opposed the new immigration law.

“We have people losing 40 to 60 percent of their crops this season,” Higginbotham said. “The law is affecting everyone.”

Residents’ reactions

In Foley, some residents have been frustrated by the influx of Hispanic immigrants, especially those that are illegal. Some longtime parishioners left St. Margaret when it initiated a formal ministry to Hispanics. A few Hispanic church members mentioned incidents such as drivers yelling that they should go home or pharmacists demanding to see proof of legality before filling prescriptions.

“If I were Mexican, I would probably want to come here, too, but they need to become citizens in a legal way and pay taxes like the rest of us,” said Mary Reinhart, a Foley resident who works at a resort near the beach.

People “start businesses that undercut everyone because they work so much cheaper with illegals,” she said. “There needs to be more regulation and a proper way to make them legal.”

But there was also an outpouring of sympathy and sadness from longtime inhabitants of Foley toward Hispanic families they had gotten to know as neighbors, co-workers, tenants or employees. Even some who said they opposed illegal immigration and supported the new law seemed to feel conflicted about seeing families they had come to know and like suddenly leaving.

At a Mexican restaurant where Zoghby, the pastor, treated several Mexican families to farewell tacos and beer Thursday, a gray-haired customer came over and hugged one of the departing guests.

At a half-empty trailer park where several Hispanic families were packing up on Friday, the longtime manager, Tom Boatwright, watched glumly.

“They are my very best renters,” he said. “They are hardworking and never cause trouble. I really hate to see them go.”

A mile away, in a development of new houses, one Mexican family was loading a decade’s worth of belongings into a pickup truck and a neighboring family had spread clothing, toys, furniture and bed linens out on the lawn for sale. A stream of people pulled up in cars and trucks to browse, most of them white Alabamans. Several said they supported the new law or wanted to see the border shut down, but all treated the Mexican families with cordial familiarity.

“I don’t know what to think. The law is supposed to be doing one thing, but it seems to be doing the opposite,” said Lisa Snow, a grandmother who was rifling through baby clothes at the yard sale. Snow said she had just lost her office job but was sorry that the Mexican families were losing everything. “It just feels very personal now,” she said.

Pamela Constable covers issues related to immigration policy, immigrant communities and international figures and issues that crop up in our local and regional midst.
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