Alabama House Bill 56 is the latest and most aggressive state immigration law to date. According to Micky Hammon, the bill’s chief sponsor, it was designed to “attack every area of an illegal alien’s life.” Surpassing the controversial Arizona and Georgia legislation, the bill calls for strict enforcement of its measures, which range from creating a civil cause of action against employers who fire citizens while retaining illegal aliens; requiring public schools to determine the immigration status of all incoming students and their parents; to requiring police officers to make a reasonable attempt to determine the residency and immigration status of a person stopped, if there is a reasonable suspicion that the person is an illegal immigrant.
The new law, passed in by the Alabama legislature and signed by Governor Robert Bentley, has already been challenged as a preemption of federal power, with mixed results. But perhaps more interesting is the specter of racism cast by this law. There are illegal immigrants of every color in this country. However, it is the Hispanic community, both U.S. citizens and illegal immigrants, which has become the focus of this debate. As such it is only appropriate to consider the effects of the bill on both groups.
Latinos make up approximately 3.9% of the Alabama’s population, or about 185,602 people. It is estimated that illegal immigrants make up around 64% of the Hispanic population, or around 120,000 people. Moreover, the two groups are often interwoven—i.e. children, who are citizens, may have parents who are here illegally. The implications of H.B. 56 for Hispanic citizens of Alabama are terrifying. Already nightly newscasts are broadcasting stories on “How to Stay Safe,” which include tips like always carrying “papers.” After the passage of H.B. 56, Hispanic Americans are forever foreigners in the eyes of the fellow citizens—they must be constantly ready to prove that they belong here as citizens and lawful residents. However, “showing papers” may be the least of these worries if the Alabama legislature is successful in getting the law enforced in its entirety.
U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Blackburn blocked some portions of the law which made it a criminal offense to conceal, harbor, transport, or shield an illegal immigrant. If the Alabama legislature is successful in its appeal, many Hispanic families would be confronted with the dilemma of being forced from their home in order to keep their family together, or face criminal charges if they continue to have contact with family members who are illegally in the state. Furthermore, approved portions of the law place children, who are legally in the U.S., whose parents are illegal immigrants, in an untenable position. Also, H.B. 56 section 30 makes it a felony for an illegal immigrant to enter into a business contract with the State of Alabama. The implications may not be apparent at first glance, but in many parts of the Alabama, utilities, such as water, sewage, and electricity, are only available through the State. Clearly, as claimed in the Federal appeal, Alabama’s new law is “highly likely to expose persons lawfully in the United States, including school children, to new difficulties in routine dealings.”
For those Latinos not lawfully in the U.S., the message is clear—Get Out. The only remaining question is where? Although some families are leaving the country voluntarily, many are simply crossing state lines. Either way, they are moving carefully, since the law became effective on September 29th , many illegal immigrants fear detention, or criminal charges, if they are seen by law enforcement. As Vianey Garcia, an illegal immigrant said, “We have to move. We have to leave everything. We can’t take anything because I’m afraid they can stop us and say why are you moving?”
The repercussions of H.B. 56 are already apparent. The Thursday the law went into effect (September 29th) scores of Latino students were absent from schools, and many have never returned. Although it is too early for reliable statistics, anecdotal evidence from the community suggests many Latino families are fleeing in fear. Proponents of the law have lauded the early signs of success; they are driving immigrant families from the state. However, it is the climate of fear created by H.B. 56 that most worries its opponents.
Fear, it is the one word that cuts through every article, news report, and interview on H.B. 56. After all, the law is an “attack” on illegal immigrants; and by proxy, their family members who are legally in the U.S., and let’s be honest, Latinos in general. The law tried to create criminal and civil sanctions not just against illegal immigrants themselves, but also against anyone who would employ, transport, aid, or even encourage them—they have been cast as lepers by Alabama lawmakers. As the stereotypical face of illegal immigration, Hispanics face suspicion and disdain lest others be exposed to the taint of illegal immigration.
It has been said H.B. 56 and its Arizona and Georgia counterparts are a cry for help—an extreme reaction to the federal government’s inaction to state immigration concerns. And like most extreme measures, it has produced a result, but at what cost? The federal government has cited concerns that extreme state immigration policies interfere with the federal strategy and enforcement—hardly a convincing argument when it was the inaction of the federal government that prompted the passage of H.B. 56 in the first place. Civil rights groups, like the Southern Poverty Law Center, claim the law will lead to racial profiling, chill children’s access to education, and result in violations of the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses. Church leaders have also protested the law, claiming it violates, and in some cases would criminalize actions prompted by Christian values. The agricultural sector says it is unable to find a replacement workforce, that crops are rotting unpicked in the fields. For a state so recently ravaged by tornadoes, contractors are concerned that a dearth of workers will cause long delays in rebuilding the state.
Furthermore, proponents of the immigration law claim it is designed to protect the residents of Alabama from bearing the costs of illegal immigrants; but there is no clear evidence that illegal immigration creates a financial burden. Moreover, evidence exists that illegal immigrants may be an economic boon. It is estimated that in 2010 illegal immigrants in Alabama paid $130.3 million in state and local taxes. Furthermore, “if all unauthorized immigrants were removed from Alabama, the state would lose $2.6 billion in economic activity, $1.1 billion in gross state product, and approximately 17,819 jobs.”
I am not contesting the importance of resolving illegal immigration. It is an important issue that begs resolution, but H.B. 56 is not the solution; moreover, it creates more problems.Furthermore, I recognize that illegal immigrants are not United States citizens, and therefore not entitled to all of the rights and privileges guaranteed by the Constitution. However, this “attack” is not well executed, and both legal and illegal residents of Alabama have been harmed by its carelessness. H.B. 56 is so poorly crafted, and that is evident in that it has created enormous hardships without serving any of its stated interests. The problem of illegal immigration deserves more consideration than reactionary legislation. History is filled with examples of minorities whose rights and liberties have been trampled because they are the scapegoat for a larger problem. The state of Alabama has a chance to choose a different road; to draw on its history and turn from the, perhaps popular, path of segregation and instead draft legislation that actually addresses the needs of its citizens.
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