ALBERTVILLE, Alabama.— Rosalba Martinez is worried. Frustrated. Angry. Yet these words are insufficient in expressing the oppression she feels as she weeps on her empty porch in this practically abandoned city. Her concern isn’t for her own situation, since she’s lived in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant for nearly 17 years. It is for her children.
"If I get deported, who am I going to leave my children with, with no one but me. Where I go, my children will follow," says Rosalba, a native of San Luis de Potosí, México.
Less than two months ago, she broke a leg and an arm in a car accident, but this is the least of her worries as she feels cornered by HB56, a state law making it a crime to be undocumented in Alabama.
The new law’s tougher parts, which went into effect September 28, ordered by federal Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn, have an impact on every aspect of daily life for immigrants and by extension their U.S. born children.
Beyond the fear that rules the lives of immigrants in the small town of Albertville, where most work in chicken processing plants, many have a great need for information to navigate this new law.
Once it went into effect, HB 56 prevented Rosalba's husband from renewing their vehicle registration, forcing him to walk to work and preventing them from selling one of their two homes.
Her children do not want to move out of Alabama and this decision is a point of family tension.
"We’re thinking of going to another state, we don’t know where, because we don’t want to be in this situation," says Rosalba. "I do not want to expose my children to having to leave their roots. They are from here, and that serves them some how. But it doesn’t serve them any way because they will be criminalized, too. They are the children of illegals, wherever they go they’re illegals also.
Rosalba reflects on this point more than others because one aspect of the law requires parents to present information on their immigration status when registering their children in school. Although this will not only affect those who register for the first time
“This law does not have a single drop of love," she said. "The Americans have to thank God that they do not know what the oppression we are experiencing feels like."
The undocumented population in Alabama is relatively small. It is estimated that nearly 95,000 are working, representing 4% of the state's workforce.
Their Plea for Help
HB 56 is listed by human rights organizations as another natural disaster for the state of Alabama. With the provisions accompanying it, it is almost impossible for an undocumented family to live decently in the state.
"It's as if we’ve been slammed with another natural disaster," said Helen Rivas, an activist who serves on the steering committee with the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, referring to the tornadoes that had hit the state.
Groups like La Casita, in Birmingham, run by Catholic Charities, are overwhelmed with calls and requests for help from the immigrant community.
"They come to ask for gas money to go to another state," said Gabriela Ramirez, program director of La Casita and part of the Missionary Guadalupanas of the Holy Spirit. "Some are already being let go from their jobs, because of fear no one wants to hire them and they just let them go."
La Casita has also received calls from people who want to renew state healthcare services for their children who are citizens, but do not dare to because they do not want to sign state documents or be asked for their "papers."
HB 56 contains a section that prohibits an undocumented immigrant from signing any contract with an individual or the state. Tenants may also be requested to present their immigration status documentation at the time they move in.
Ramirez, also known as "Sister Gaby" said that "doors are being closed on Hispanics everywhere."
That is why immigrants such as Rosalba, feel suffocated by the situation.
"I wanted to sell one of my houses and the buyer told me he could not sign a contract with me because I have no papers," said Rosalba.
She recently paid to renew her vehicle registration. But when the renewal notice never arrived in the mail, Rosalba went to the office in person.
Once there, they told her that they needed a state ID (to process her registration renewal.)
HB 56 in fact prohibits undocumented immigrants from renewing their vehicle license plates. In order to avoid protests from citizens who would have also had to prove their citizenship if they wished to renew their vehicle registration, the state launched a new database for vehicle registration known as ALVerify.
"Now we have no car, and we have to get a ride (from someone else) to do everything," Rosalba laments. "It's oppressive. Unless you’re going through it, you have no idea how bad it feels."
Any hope that the law might be stalled was recently tossed out the window, when a federal judge refused to freeze portions of HB 56 that had come under appeal.
For now, pro-immigrant groups in Alabama are operating in a state of emergency, focused on disseminating information to their communities via Spanish-language radio stations.
"Moving (away) is a personal decision," says Zayne Smith, director of immigration policy for the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. The group has released emergency information on the impact of the law.
"We want people to stay, to not lose their job, but this is what the law is causing," he said.
But it’s not only undocumented immigrants who are living in fear of the new law. Some Hispanics who actually have legal documents will also be affected.
"My big fear is running into a racist person while I’m out with my daughter and being told to go home,” says Edna Lopez, a resident near the city of Hoover, Birmingham.
Alabama's law is much tougher than the controversial SB 1070 in Arizona, which went into effect only partially, and another law in Georgia that was stopped in the courts. Both supporters and opponents of HB 56 say it opens the door for other states to expand their anti-immigrant proposals, because the Alabama law was upheld by a federal judge.
"This decision is not much more and nothing less than a great victory for the state of Alabama and those who support the rule of law," said Republican Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, Micky Hammon, a co-author of HB 56. "[The decision] proves that many of the strongest critics of this law, including Obama’s Justice Department, the ACLU and other liberal extremists were wrong."
Although the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a legal challenge against the law, Smith said that the federal court’s decision on HB 56 will have a ripple effect.
"What’s happening in Alabama is giving the nod to other states to move forward with their own immigration plans," says Smith, a pro-immigrant activist and lawyer.
That's why undocumented immigrants such as Angelina Manuel, a 45-year old Guatemalan, say that whether you decide to move out of state or not, you’ll have to face persecution sooner or later.
"We’re here in America, and they can grab you wherever you may be," said the immigrant from Huehuetenango.
Yet, Manuel says he has no fear of being arrested by police.
"Only if they tell me, ‘I’m going to kill you.’ Then I’ll be afraid," he says.
For Rosalba, there is no going back, and she is left only with her faith in god. And perhaps, the Obama administration, in which she has ceased to believe.
"We ask God for mercy, but also ask the government to do something," she said in tears that no longer come from anger, but from a sense of helplessness.
Translated by Jacob Simas and Suzanne Manneh
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