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Dispatch from Alabama: Organizing against HB 56

By: 
Ingrid Chapman
Date Published: 
February 16, 2012

This is a message to friends, family and fellow organizers regarding the struggle in Alabama against the most extreme anti-immigrant law in the country, HB 56. The bill, titled the Hammon-Beason Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, was signed into law in June of 2011. Although it has received a lot less coverage, it is, by all accounts, even more draconian than Arizona’s SB 1070.

I arrived in Alabama 2 days before HB 56 went into effect with the original plan of being here for 2 weeks. That turned into 3 months.  I have just returned for 6 more months to work with the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice www.acij.net. I learned about the incredibly egregious law HB 56 and I listened to my heart, which told me to respond to the call for organizing support and to go to Alabama.  Now I am living in Alabama (AL), a place I never imagined myself. Every day is incredibly challenging, full of simultaneous heartbreak and inspiration and yet I am thankful to be here, working side by side with hundreds of incredible people. I believe that from this atrocity, a movement is being born that will impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, possibly millions.  I know many might not know the extent of both the crisis and the subsequent developing movement to confront it, so I want to update you and ask for your feedback and support in building a national movement against this vicious anti-immigration law.

The first weeks were really difficult as I literally witnessed a heart breaking human rights disaster exploding across the state. Because HB 56 is so extensive, AL citizens are taking on the role of interpreting the law on their own and enforcing it as they see fit, causing wide-spread and deep trauma. Citizens, taking on the role of immigration enforcers, are checking their neighbors immigration status at every intersection of people’s lives; public schools, children’s sports teams, power and water companies, hospitals, pharmacies, trailer parks, apartment buildings, even Walmart. The police, not to be outdone, actively check people at every traffic stop.  This is of course the goal of HB 56, to make Alabama unlivable for undocumented immigrants.  Thousands of people have already left the state. Thousands more are living in fear, only leaving their homes for work, school and the absolute necessities.

Community Response

The good news is that people are fighting back and organizing, building an incredible cross-cultural, multiracial movement across Alabama.

Alabama is a state that has witnessed some of the harshest racism and civil rights abuses in US history and yet also has been home to some of the most inspiring organizing of the civil rights movement.  This history is still very much present and many of the veterans and decedents of that civil rights movement are stepping up in the struggle against HB 56, outraged at the parallels of racism, abuse and Jim Crow. 

The budding movement in Alabama right now is a striking example of immigrant communities coming together with African Americans in an effort to build unity on the state-wide level.  Immigrants are getting organized and forming new organizations all across the state. In late December, we held a rally in Montgomery where community leaders mobilized over 26 buses from around the state and 3,000 people to march to the Governor’s mansion. Hundreds of children led the march bringing letters they had written to the Governor asking him to repeal HB 56.  That afternoon we held a strategy meeting with immigrant leaders. Community members representing all regions of the state shared success stories from their efforts over the past three months and discussed the possibilities for building an even larger fight-back in the coming period to repeal HB 56.  Just last week we held another strategy retreat with over 85 immigrant leaders representing cities from around the state, building up organizing skills and collectively setting the priorities for the legislative and organizing struggle ahead. Among communities of faith we are also seeing a major education and organizing campaign going on. Immigration 101 workshops are being held in churches across the state and hundreds of faith leaders are speaking out against the law.

Economic Crisis

The implementation of HB 56 is having deep economic impacts, with a loss of skilled workers, jobs, and state tax revenues, and businesses shutting down. As these impacts become more widely felt, as series of unlikely allies such as Republican farmers, local and international business owners, business associations, city chambers of commerce, mayors, county sheriffs and police chiefs are coming out against the law.  International businesses are canceling projects in AL, because it is not safe for their workers. Farmers whose tomatoes rotted in the field because all their workers fled the state have confronted the Governor with buckets asking if he would help pick the crops. The Alabama Farmers Federation estimated the sector would suffer $63 million in losses as the result of the new law going into effect.  The Sheriff of Jefferson County spoke at a congressional hearing stating that the police force absolutely does not have the resources or training to take on the role of immigration enforcement and admitted that the law requires his officers to racially profile. A survey done showed that the majority of Alabamians are now against the law.  

It is becoming more and more clear that HB 56, a law driven by racism and scapegoating, offers a false solution to Alabama’s economic problems. It will not only fail to fix the local economy but also devastate the lives of thousands and hurt all Alabamians morally, spiritually and financially. This law is the most aggressive and extensive statewide anti-immigrant bill in the US with no less than 30 different provisions. Below are some of the harshest elements of the law that are currently in effect under HB 56:

1. Police are required to check the immigration status of people they stop and reasonably suspect to be in the country unlawfully.

Impact: Racial profiling of all people who are brown and or have accents. People are afraid to leave their homes, afraid to drive to work, to school, to the grocery store.  People have feelings of being hunted and constantly surveilled. A 13-year-old told me she sends text messages to her parents all day while she is at school fearing any day may be the day she loses her parents because they have been detained and deported during a traffic stop. A mother I met started having panic attacks from the stress of fearing she will be torn apart from her children and deported. A judge advised a lawyer that the lawyer had an obligation to report her own client to ICE as undocumented. The same judge stated that he might have to report to ICE any person who asked for an interpreter, as such a request would raise a red flag. Latino workers on a construction jobsite were threatened by a group of men with guns, who told them to go back to Mexico and threatened to kill them if they were there the following day. They declined to report the crime to law enforcement because of fears of what would happen to them if they did.  A victim of domestic violence went to court to obtain a protective order.  The clerk told her that she’d be reported to ICE if she proceeded.

2.  All new contracts between an undocumented immigrant and another person are unenforceable in state court.

Impact: In Northport, the water authority provided notices to Latino customers that their services will be shut off if they didn’t provide proof of immigration status immediately. In Madison County and in Decatur, the public utilities have announced that they will not provide water, gas, or sewage service to people who could not prove their status. A woman called and said the manager of her trailer park asked residents to prove their status and then evicted everyone, claiming their leases where now null and void.  A husband called us to report that his wife, nine months pregnant, was too afraid to go to a hospital in Alabama to give birth, and that he was trying to decide whether to have her give birth at home or somehow to try to get to Florida. Clerks at Walmart have asked Latinos to show an AL drivers license in order to check out. A mother spoke to the local office of the Department of Human Resources about her US citizen children’s eligibility for food stamps.  The social worker told the mother that she would be turning the mother into the federal government for deportation so the family went into hiding. 

3. It is a felony for undocumented immigrants to enter into a “business transaction” with the state of Alabama.

Impact: People could not renew car tags, providing more excuses for the police to stop them.  People could not renew their tags for their mobile homes, causing fear people may lose their homes. Immigrant owned businesses went under causing more unemployment and decrease in revenue for the state. A Latino man was arrested and detained, while in jail he was told that he could not use the telephone to call his attorney because the use of the phone would be a “business transaction” prohibited by HB56 (the business transaction part of the law has recently been advised against enforcing by the AL attorney general and is changing in some parts of the state).

4. Require K-12 school officials to question students about their immigration status and that of their parents.

Impact: Parents were afraid to send their kids to school. 2500 children were taken out of school by their parents. Thousands more were absent in the first weeks.  An ESL teacher told me the parents dropped their kids off at her house afraid the schools would report them to ICE if they took their children directly to school.  Schools lost millions of dollars in federal funding, and thus jobs because of the un-enrollment of thousands. Racism and bullying has increased in the schools. Teachers jokingly made comments about ICE picking up absent Latino students. A group of immigrant children were denied the ability to participate on a sports team, with coaches stating they were not supposed to invest resources in immigrant children. (This part of the law went into effect and then was temporally enjoined two weeks later.  However, much damage was done.)

Other provisions of the law have been temporarily blocked in the courts, their status not yet clear. These include provisions that:

  • Prohibit residents from transporting or harboring undocumented immigrants.
  • Make it a traffic violation for motorists who stop in the roadway to hire a day laborer.
  • Prohibit universities from enrolling certain immigrants—including asylees, refugees or those granted temporary protected status.
  • Make it a misdemeanor for failing to complete or carry an alien registration card.
  • Prohibit employers from taking state tax deductions for wages paid to undocumented workers.
  • Allow employers to be sued for discrimination by people with US citizen or legal immigration status when they are fired or not hired by an employer with undocumented employees.

Taking Action

The struggle to repeal HB 56 will have a reverberating effect on the national political and social landscape. The potential impact of both our victories and losses in Alabama will be far reaching.  Organizing resources in AL are very minimal so national solidarity and outcry against this law take on an added level of importance. We cannot allow AL to set the new standard for racism, scapegoating and dehumanization and define it as the new normal. This needs to be the moment that the tide really turns and laws like this become politically impossible.

What you can do:  Talk amongst your friends and organizations about how you can help build the movement nationally in support of the people of AL. Learn from national solidarity organizing against Arizona’s SB 1070 (example: pass city council resolutions condemning HB 56 and committing your city to be a welcoming city to all.  Organize artists to create visuals and cultures of resistance to HB 56). Also be creative and develop new ideas, then make a plan and make it happen.  Help organize an Occupy Day of Action in Solidarity with the people in Alabama and against racist false economic solutions such as the scapegoating of immigrants.  The Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice needs resources to do more organizing on the ground. Organize a fundraiser to raise awareness and money, you can make a meaningful personal donation at www.acij.net.  Raise the national consciousness by getting and keeping what is happening in AL in the media, both mainstream and social media. We need skilled organizers on the ground in AL (Spanish speaking a major plus). Fundraise in your community and come to AL for two weeks or longer and plug into an important and growing movement!

For more information and updates:

Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ACIJ)

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100 Reasons Why Alabama’s Immigration Law is a Disaster

Ingrid Chapman is a carpenter by trade, dedicated organizer of 15 years and lover of life’s beauty. She has organized in communities across the US and is currently an Organizer with the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice. Her commitment to struggle against injustice is driven by a deep love for people and a vision of all people being able to live fulfilling and dignified lives. To get in touch with Ingrid, please contact: Ingridchapman at gmail dot com