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.”
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