Alabama Tornado Victims Fear Immigration Crackdown

Alabama Tornado Victims Fear Immigration Crackdown

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala.—After the tornado struck Tuscaloosa on April 27, the Latino Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service group, set out to rescue Spanish-speaking survivors. Wearing neon green vests, members of the group’s emergency responder team headed into hard-hit neighborhoods. But most victims who were still alive hid in the shattered skeletons of their homes.

“They didn’t trust us," recalled Fernando, one volunteer. "They thought we were with the police because of our vests, and they were worried the police would take them back to their home countries. They were even afraid to get food." An undocumented immigrant himself, Fernando said his community lives in heightened fear of Alabama’s pending immigration bill.

Janet Sosa, an outreach worker with the Southern Poverty Law Center, met similar apprehension when she tried to help Latino Tuscaloosans the day after the tornado. As she combed “blocks that looked like junkyards, where you couldn’t even tell houses existed,” she offered relief services to people she found walking around. Most listened hesitantly and then continued on, unwilling to go to shelters or accept aid. She attributed the suspicion, in part, to Alabama House Bill 56 and Senate Bill 256—Arizona-style bills to crack down on illegal immigration.

Both bills would require that police check the status of anyone who might be undocumented, and make it illegal to rent to, hire, or give rides to illegal immigrants. The House version would also require all employers to use E-Verify to check employment status, while the Senate version would ban undocumented immigrant children from participating in extracurricular activities at school. A compromise is in the works.

The sponsors, Rep. Micky Hammond and Sen. Scott Beason, both Republicans, have been trying to pass similar legislation for years. But the current versions of the bills are the most extreme—and the most successful—yet proposed, said Sam Brooke, staff attorney with Southern Poverty Law Center. Thanks to Arizona’s precedent, and the Republican Handshake of Alabama — a series of promises the party made when it gained the majority in November, including a pledge to pass immigration legislation — the deal looks close to sealed. If signed by Governor Robert Bentley, as expected, the bill would take effect in January 2012.

Brooke said he understands why tornado victims are so concerned, even before any legislation has been enacted. “If you see someone walking around with a FEMA badge knocking on people’s doors, you see a badge. Of course you get afraid,” he said.

Groceries and Trust


Struggling to help wary tornado victims, Fernando said he and and his compatriots finally coaxed them outside with bags of groceries. Many people were crying and holding children in their arms. “That’s when we began to earn their trust,” he said.

To serve their needs, Fernando’s group opened a shelter at the Holy Spirit Catholic Church that helped 3,500 people over two weeks. “It was all very spontaneous,” he said, explaining that his group had completed their emergency response training just eight days before the tornado. “We wanted to help the Hispanic community because they don’t have sufficient resources. But we never thought we’d use our training so soon.” Word got out in the Latino community that the shelter was a safe space, and even police officers said they wouldn’t check people’s papers.

But by mid-May, just two and a half weeks after the storm, the shelter was already closing. Victor Tlapanco, leader of the Knights of Columbus, said the church needed the space, but he lamented that the shelter’s work felt incomplete.

“If we had the money, had our own space, we’d keep it open,” he said.

One storm victim, Miguel, sat fidgeting with a pair of scissors on a break from sorting through piles of clothes. Long hair curtaining somber eyes, he said he and his friends weren't sure where they’d go next. Their time at the shelter had taken their minds off the traumatic experience of the twister. “There were people flying in the air, animals, cars,” he recalled. “It was like a bomb.” As dead bodies lay in the debris in his neighborhood and people called for their children, he had slept in his caved-in house the first night.

Of the anti-immigrant legislation, Miguel said, “After going through the tornado, there’s nothing more I can fear.” But his friend Oscar, wearing a “Survivor” t-shirt, insisted, “It won’t pass—the government has more important things to think about.”

For people like Miguel and Oscar, finding stable housing is likely to become even harder if the legislation passes, said Gwendolyn Ferreti, a PhD candidate from Texas who is currently at the University of Alabama researching migration patterns. Ferreti said that undocumented people would end up in transient housing and on the streets and that many immigrants who lost vehicles in the storm would become permanently immobile, if residents complied with the new law and refused to give them rides.

“It’s absurd—if I have a [U.S.-born] child here and she takes me to the hospital, she can get arrested?” said Fernando, who has lived in the U.S. with his family for ten years. He moved to Alabama, he said, because “it’s calmer here, and there were more job opportunities than other states when we came.”

Alabama’s undocumented population is estimated at 120,000, double what it was five years ago and ten times its size of a decade ago, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Many immigrants have come to work in the state's poultry business, Brooke said.

A "Jobs Bill"?


As the state struggles to recover from the recession, Beason calls his legislation a “jobs bill” that would allow Alabamians to be hired for work now done by undocumented immigrants. In the aftermath of the tornado, he has said that he wants “Alabamians to rebuild Alabamians.”

But under his bill, only state-run or -funded companies would have to use E-Verify to check immigration status. Beason told the Associated Press  that this is because small business owners already know and can trust their long-time employees. Instead of paying fines, companies that hired undocumented immigrants would face suspension of their business permits until they agreed to comply with the law. Meanwhile, undocumented workers would face up to a $500 fine.

Recently Mississippi tried to enact a similar bill, but included high fines on employers. The legislation failed.

Opponents say the legislation would force racial profiling and interfere with the daily lives of anyone who appears Latino or foreign-born. Ferreti, a U.S. citizen of Mexican heritage, said she dreads being scrutinized for her appearance.

On the other side of the debate, Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely told the Athens News-Courier,  “A good police officer profiles. If it looks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.” Still, Blakely expressed concern about the added burdens the legislation would impose on police departments, including the cost of transferring undocumented immigrants to Atlanta for federal detention.

Immigrants across the state are are also worried, said Zayne Smith, legal advocate with Alabama Appleseed, a nonprofit advocacy group. In the past, 25 to 50 immigrants would show up at her “know your rights” sessions across Alabama. Now, about 150 attend and ask, “What does this bill mean for me?”

“This is an illegal bill,” said Brooke, adding that the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Rights—which includes the Southern Poverty Law Center, Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, Alabama Appleseed, and the ACLU—would sue to block the legislation from taking effect. He predicted that the federal courts would issue an injunction, just as they have blocked much of Arizona’s SB 1070.

“If the state legislature’s serious about jobs, they should take up workers’ rights." Brooke said. "This [legislation] is yet another form of the bigotry and intolerance we’ve been fighting for years. It’s just a shame that our legislature is repeating it.”
 

Comments

 
Anonymous

Posted May 29 2011

WE as a Country need to get serious about immigration reform, the rescuer quoted above is an illegal alien himself, he is complaining that illegals have a fear of being deported. They should have that fear and we should deport them, and one of these days when the people we send to Washington decide to read our constitution they will enforce the laws and these folks will return home voluntarily. They can remove their fear very easily, simply go home. AS for the Catholic church they have been aiding and abetting illegal aliens for the last 40 years, this misguided attempt to bolster their own church rolls (increase their membership) is shameful at best, and not in their best interest or that of our country.

Anonymous

Posted May 30 2011

Let these people take the 10's of billions of U.S. Dollars that they send back to their countries of origin every year, leave. They are not wanted here and do not belong here. They are citizens of their own countries with their own language and cultures. Time for them to go home where they belong. NOT Here! Why is it that tougher laws need to be written when the ones that exist just need to be enforced? What is it about being illegal don't they understand?

Anonymous

Posted May 30 2011

Yes, of course; the comment by anonymouse (WE as...) should remind us all that we are not a Christian country as some people like to allege. Law over grace is a different belief from a different religion.

Red Writer

Anonymous

Posted Jun 2 2011

Once again I am impresed with this young talent Meredith Hoffman and look forward to reading more of her pieces.
Maggie Mosteller-Timbes

Anonymous

Posted Jun 6 2011

I am very sad with all these comments, we should be ashamed! Jesus Christ did not DIE for us to be like this. No wonder why these tornados are happening.... I bet if all the people that are against immigration are all people that their families came from all over the world.the only differences are the times. We are lucky to be citizens. I bet that the governer has never been to the poor parts of Mexico. Or India to see how they have to live because if you don't have $ you can't send your children to school. I hope that when Jesus comes back you won't deport him! He's not from here. Shame on you.

Anonymous

Posted Jun 6 2011

I am very sad with all these comments, we should be ashamed! Jesus Christ did not DIE for us to be like this. No wonder why these tornados are happening.... I bet if all the people that are against immigration are all people that their families came from all over the world.the only differences are the times. We are lucky to be citizens. I bet that the governer has never been to the poor parts of Mexico. Or India to see how they have to live because if you don't have $ you can't send your children to school. I hope that when Jesus comes back you won't deport him! He's not from here. Shame on you.

Anonymous

Posted Jun 10 2011

I agree with the post on Jesus. Who are we to be so hard on this issue, this country was stolen from the American Indians and Mexican people, by lying coniving white men who came here and promised these people things they did not do, they just manipulated and stole the land, creating a legal system to satisfy them. Now its near impossible, if you are Mexican, guatamalen, brazilian etc.. .to even get permission to come here let alone a visa to become an american, their countries are so corrupt and dangerous, they CAN'T DO IT LEGALLY, i ask you, what would you do to FEED YOUR KIDS and take the BEST CARE POSSIBLE FOR THEM??? Would you cross a border, that shouldn't be keeping you out in the first place? Go to a third world country first, see how people live, Judge then what you would do for your precious family! Why aren't we talking about reform and amnesty and helping people become legal and pay thier taxes, and live here, in the land of the FREE, and become productive citizens? Who is working on that? there is only a percentage of people allowed to come here and apply, and buddy if you do not have money in Mexico or some of these 3rd world nations, YOU ARE NEVER GETTING PERMISSION TO COME HERE! REFORM and helping people is what we should be doing, who the heck do people think they are? You ought to be glad and thanking God you were born here, You could have been in a third world country starving and dying and watching your family go thru that...i can't believe the southern people are so heartless and cruel. They sure didn't mind buying their homes cheap on the backs of the immigrants working so cheap, or having the landscaping done cheap, look at thier work ethic, where is ours? we are a nation of lazy complainers and we are living on land that was stolen and laws and government were created to fatten up the rich white people of this nation............i am continually ashamed of the behavior and proud to be here and blessed to be one of the "lucky" people in this world who has a chance in life.

Anonymous

Posted Jun 10 2011

I agree with the post on Jesus. Who are we to be so hard on this issue, this country was stolen from the American Indians and Mexican people, by lying coniving white men who came here and promised these people things they did not do, they just manipulated and stole the land, creating a legal system to satisfy them. Now its near impossible, if you are Mexican, guatamalen, brazilian etc.. .to even get permission to come here let alone a visa to become an american, their countries are so corrupt and dangerous, they CAN'T DO IT LEGALLY, i ask you, what would you do to FEED YOUR KIDS and take the BEST CARE POSSIBLE FOR THEM??? Would you cross a border, that shouldn't be keeping you out in the first place? Go to a third world country first, see how people live, Judge then what you would do for your precious family! Why aren't we talking about reform and amnesty and helping people become legal and pay thier taxes, and live here, in the land of the FREE, and become productive citizens? Who is working on that? there is only a percentage of people allowed to come here and apply, and buddy if you do not have money in Mexico or some of these 3rd world nations, YOU ARE NEVER GETTING PERMISSION TO COME HERE! REFORM and helping people is what we should be doing, who the heck do people think they are? You ought to be glad and thanking God you were born here, You could have been in a third world country starving and dying and watching your family go thru that...i can't believe the southern people are so heartless and cruel. They sure didn't mind buying their homes cheap on the backs of the immigrants working so cheap, or having the landscaping done cheap, look at thier work ethic, where is ours? we are a nation of lazy complainers and we are living on land that was stolen and laws and government were created to fatten up the rich white people of this nation............i am continually ashamed of the behavior and proud to be here and blessed to be one of the "lucky" people in this world who has a chance in life.

Anonymous

Posted Jun 12 2011

Whenever anyone brings in the "Name of Jesus", I have to pause. Apparently these people never read the 10 Commandments-"Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not covet". My social security number was compromised and I had a difficult time getting my credit record fixed. Illegals knowingly steal Americans identities and say they are only trying to better their themselves. Illegals are selfish and self centered. Stealing is what they do everyday. Why should I have any concerns about these stealing people? Send them home and let them "better themselves there". As far as the tornadoes go, God is the one in charge and no one knows His purpose.

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