In a united effort to repeal Alabama's anti-immigrant law, Black, white and Latino members of Congress, faith, labor, community and civil rights leaders kicked off a state and national campaign Nov. 21 in Birmingham.
Thousands of Alabamians from across the state packed the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist church to denounce the draconian measure, which opponents call racist, anti-American and anti-family.
The campaign, One Family, One Alabama, welcomed a congressional delegation earlier in the day led by Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., one of the most vocal proponents for immigration reform in Washington.
"I am going to Alabama to stand with the good, decent people of Alabama to fight back and defend what I think is right," Gutierrez said in a statement days before the campaign launched. "We need an immigration policy that does justice and fairness to the rich history of immigrants that we have in the United States of America. An immigration policy that doesn't rip families apart."
Gutierrez said, after visiting Alabama in October, that he was moved to urge his fellow lawmakers to see how the law is impacting workers and their families.
"The fear and chaos in a small, not very well-established Latino and immigrant community has run deeper," he said in press conference leading up to this week's visit. "The feeling of danger and despair is palpable, perhaps owing to Alabama's history of dogs and water cannons and bombings and worse."
Gutierrez spearheaded the congressional delegation of 11 House members including Rep. Yvette D. Clarke, D-NY. She called the law "egregious" and an attempt by "reactionary politicians" to legislate immigration which is out of their jurisdiction.
"No one should believe that the problem with our nation's immigration policies are strictly limited to the reactionary, abusive, and often bigoted Alabama and Arizona laws," she wrote in the Huffington Post.
She notes state-governing bodies should help and assist the immigrant community, especially its youth in gaining access to higher education and tuition assistance. It's imperative that Congress takes up comprehensive immigration reform to keep families together, provide a feasible pathway to citizenship, strengthen the economy and create jobs for all Americans, she says.
"It is our duty to reject the politics of divisiveness and bigotry," Clarke adds. "We must pass immigration reform now. How we treat these immigrants today will ultimately define our future as a nation."
An ad hoc hearing was held by the delegation prior to the rally where the mayor of Birmingham, William Bell, said the Alabama law echoes the dark days of apartheid in South Africa and Alabama's Jim Crow laws. Bell said the U.S. doesn't need immigration laws in 50 states, but rather one federal immigration law.
"We need to speak with one voice and we need to speak as Americans," he said in an Associated Press story.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., was also part of the delegation. His home state also passed a strict immigration law that spurred Alabama and several other states to copy and follow suit. The law in Alabama like others is going to hurt local economies and the social fabric of the state, he said. "People are discovering that the rhetoric of hate is not making the country any better. It's making it worse," he said.
The law requires police to detain people who can't prove they are in the country legally and prohibits immigrants from receiving government services. One provision of the law calls for schools to check the legal residency of new students.
The law was passed by a majority Republican state assembly and signed by its GOP governor in June. Some Alabama Republican leaders say the federal government, which opposes the law, should be sending them "thank you" notes for addressing the problem.
Meanwhile Democratic State Senator in Alabama, Bill Beasley has sponsored a bill to repeal the law, HB 56. His colleague State Rep. Merika Coleman, also a Democrat, told the crowd of rally goers at the Church there is strong opposition to the law.
"We are the majority," she said. "They are the extremists."
The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) held a Nov. 21 vigil at Lafayette Square in Washington D.C. as part of a nationwide effort to show solidarity with Alabamians who oppose the measure.
"In just a few short weeks, HB 56 has wreaked havoc damage on Alabama's economy and educational system and endangered the public safety and civil rights of hundreds of thousands of residents," said Janet Murguía, president and CEO of NCLR, in a statement. "To push back on this reprehensible law, we need a unified front of everyone from local activists in Alabama to our national leaders to lend their voice and support to urge the Alabama legislature to reject a law that harkens back to a very dark chapter in the state's history."
Isabel Rubio, executive director of the Hispanic Interests Coalition of Alabama, an NCLR affiliate and member of the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, is a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the law.
"We need to come together as a nation and say 'enough' to these bills that demonize and discriminate against our community and damage our whole state," she said.
Photo: Rep. Luis Gutierrez speaks during an ad hoc field hearing concerning immigration law HB56, Nov. 21, in Birmingham, Ala. Gutierrez is flanked by Rep. Joe Baca, from left, Mayor William Bell, Rep. Terri Sewell, Rep. Silvestre Reyes and Rep. Al Green. (Linda Stelter /Birmingham News/AP)