African American, civil rights and labor leaders visited Birmingham, Ala., this week to see first hand how the state's new anti-immigrant law is impacting the lives and communities of Latinos. The delegation has denounced the law, calling it a clear violation of people's basic civil and human rights.
The group met with community leaders, immigrant families, business owners and workers on a fact-finding trip to shed light on the law's negative consequences.
Alabama's Republican Gov. Robert Bentley signed HB 56 into law in June. It's considered the nation's toughest anti-immigrant law to date and opponents call it the most oppressive one.
The law has wide-reaching implications for Alabama's Latino workers and their families, said members of the delegation, which was sponsored by the AFL-CIO.
"We cannot be quiet on this gross violation of an entire population's civil rights," said William Lucy, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, in a statement.
"Just as we saw years ago in the days of Jim Crow, hardworking people, families, and even children are being unjustly targeted and criminalized in their own communities," said Lucy. "The fight for civil rights did not end with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It continues whenever and wherever someone is denied their equal rights."
Rev. Angie Wright of the Greater Birmingham Ministries added, "This law affects every community in Alabama, not just immigrant communities. It damages our public schools. It diverts law enforcement's attention from real crime in every community."
Wright continued, "Public resources needed for schools, health care and transportation are being drained to defend and implement a morally and fiscally unconscionable law. Our state is unearthing the pain and shame of our past, once again refusing to honor the humanity of the people who simply want to live with dignity, hope for their children and the necessities of life. It hurts every single person who lives in Alabama, whether they realize it yet or not."
The law allows police to question people about their immigration status and arrest them if they are suspected of being in the country illegally.
Critics say the law was written to deny undocumented immigrants the ability to work or travel, to own or rent a home and to enter into contracts of any kind.
Fear and panic is widespread in Alabama, causing an exodus of Latinos abandoning their homes, jobs and crops in the fields. Utilities are preparing to shut off water, power and heat to customers who cannot show them the right papers.
The law also requires schools to collect information about the residency status of students and share the information with state authorities. Thousands of Latino kids have reportedly dropped out of school, fearing deportation.
Victor Palafox is a student organizer in Alabama who has been advocating for the passage of the DREAM Act and immigration reform.
"Our schools, our churches, our neighborhoods have not been the same since HB 56 passed," he said. "Many people are afraid and have even left the life they built here. But seeing that there are people from all over the country, from other races and other life experiences who will stand together with us against this unjust law makes me feel like we have a chance to restore our community and make it stronger."
Several national evangelical leaders also recently visited Alabama as part of an "emergency delegation." They too are denouncing the law, calling it a moral and humanitarian crisis.
African American leaders including U. W. Clemon, a former state senator and Alabama's first black federal judge, say the new law exemplifies a new civil rights crisis.
Clemon, now in his late 60s, marched in demonstrations alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He has seen what he describes as great advances over the years in the fight for civil rights. Today, however, he is so concerned over Alabama's immigration law that he is calling efforts to resist it the new civil rights movement.
"We are at a point in American history where powerful forces are determined to turn back the clock on the tremendous progress we made in civil rights over the last 100 years," Clemon said on the American Civil Liberties Union blog. "And they've come very far in doing so."
Clemon adds the Latino population is less than five percent in Alabama, yet state lawmakers are hell-bent on removing as much of that 4 percent as possible. They're trying to scare them out of the state, he notes.
"The design, the purpose of it was to drive out people who don't look like us," said Clemon. "In this instance it turned out to be Hispanics. Many of them, unfortunately, are American citizens, just as American as you and I."
Activists note a statewide community-driven campaign and coalition has been formed to repeal HB 56.
Photo: Protestors march outside the Alabama Capitol during a demonstration against Alabama's immigration law in Montgomery, Ala., Nov. 15. Federal courts have blocked parts of the Republican-backed law from taking effect, but both supporters and critics still call it the nation's toughest state