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.
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.”