But several trailer parks once fully occupied by Hispanics lie half-empty, and Hispanic store owners said there is less demand for items such as fresh tortillas and discount phone cards to Mexico, partly because some customers left and some of the others who stayed behind are reluctant to shop. They also said social interaction between Hispanics and others is stiffer.
“People who know me suddenly ask me whether I am legal,” said Mireya Bonilla, who has owned La Orquidea, a large Hispanic grocery and diner, since the early 1990s. Both white and Hispanic families still come in for lunch, but Bonilla said she feels less comfortable than before. “What’s hard is the way people look at you now,” she said.
Across the room, a white-haired diner who gave his name only as Bruce, said he had visited Central America and helped raise money through his church to fight poverty there. Yet he also said he supported the state law.
“I hate to see what’s happening to the Hispanics. Their community is suffering, and so is the economy,” he said. “But if the laws had been enforced 20 years ago, we wouldn’t be having these problems. Now we have this new law, so we need to give it time to work.”
Albertville Mayor Lindsey Lyons said the Hispanic influx had been a “double-edged sword” for the town, bringing crime and social problems as well as a source of labor and revenue. Since many illegal immigrants left, he said, there had been a drop in illegal drug activity, prostitution and car accidents. But he also acknowledged that some businesses had suffered.
“The bill has done what was intended, but it is not the permanent answer,” he said. “We need Congress to compromise and come up with a better immigration system. We want these people to learn English and become citizens.” If all the illegal immigrants left the area, Lyons added, “our industries would shut down.”
No one really knows how many of the state’s estimated 180,000 illegal immigrants have left or been replaced, but the rash of criticism from employers that depend on immigrant labor was so intense by this spring that Beason, the state senator, sponsored a revised version of the law to ease penalties for businesses that employ illegal immigrants.
Asked about employers’ recruitment difficulties, Beason said it would take time for Alabama natives to return to the kind of menial jobs they did before immigrants crowded out the field, accepting work for lower wages. He said he hoped that the law would improve the “work ethic” of young people and give jobless dropouts a chance to start over. “Using illegals has warped the job market and taken unfair advantage of them, too,” Beason said.
Living in constant fear
The outcry from legal Hispanic residents has been another unforeseen complication. Mexican communities here are a dense mix of legal and illegal residents, often within the same families. Some breadwinners who fled to neighboring states have returned to their wives and children, using fake work IDs or trying to stay invisible at home. Their legal relatives live in a shared state of tension, fearful of having family cars confiscated by police or documents rejected by suspicious clerks.
A few miles outside Albertville, Armando Macias, 43, lives in a trailer with his wife, Nora, and their two small children. The rooms are decorated with prayers and a candlelit shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Macias, who came to the United States in 1989, has a work permit. Both children are U.S. citizens, and the family has spent thousands of dollars on lawyers so Nora can become a legal resident. The parents said the new law has left them confused and scared, reluctant even to seek public vaccination cards for the children.
“People think we are illegal now because of our skin,” said Macias, who often drives up Chandler Mountain to work in the tomato fields. The family has had domestic problems and brushes with the law; Macias was once arrested for being drunk, and welfare workers removed the children until the trailer was refurbished. Still, the couple seem determined and united.
“We have made mistakes, but we are not criminals or terrorists,” Macias said. “We came here to work, and Alabama is our home, but now we’re not wanted.”