Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ACIJ) and many allies secured a huge victory last week when it won a lawsuit challenging Alabama’s destructive anti-immigrant law, HB 56. The most inhumane parts of HB 56 are now permanently blocked, allowing immigrant children to once again attend school, Alabamans to offer rides to their neighbors, and families to come out from the shadows. Today, I’m honored to share an interview with Rev. Angie Wright, a member of the ACIJ steering committee. She shares with us letters from school children to Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, and how America can learn from her state. LIRS Media Relations Specialist Clarissa Perkins conducted the interview over email.
Clarissa Perkins (CP): What personal experiences led you to become an advocate for immigrant rights?
Rev. Angie Wright (AW): I was deeply and forever influenced as a young child living in Atlanta during the civil rights movement. I grew up with a sensitivity to anything that was dehumanizing to other people. As a young adult, I got involved with justice ministries, and I got hooked. Later, I became a pastor. I started a church where our calling is to “celebrate all people as precious children of God.” When Alabama passed its inhumane anti-immigrant law, there was no question in my mind that it was urgent to resist it, and that to resist was a necessary part of my life’s work.
CP: Last week, ACIJ blocked the most egregious parts of Alabama’s HB 56. Can you briefly explain the major components of HB 56 and describe its most destructive parts?
AW: See major components below. In addition, the harboring and transporting provision made it illegal to assist undocumented persons; a pastor or ministry which knowingly assisted 10 or more undocumented persons would be a felon subject to 10 years in prison and a $15,000 fine.
Under the agreement, police cannot hold someone during a traffic stop solely to check immigration status. This is a significant victory because many departments across the state believed the “papers, please” provisions allowed them to detain people just for that purpose. The coalition will remain vigilant to ensure these abuses do not continue.
The following parts of the law have now been permanently blocked:
- Requiring schools to verify the immigration status of newly enrolled K-12 students.
- Criminalizing the solicitation of work by unauthorized immigrants.
- A provision that made it a crime to provide a ride to undocumented immigrants or to rent to them.
- A provision that infringed on the ability of individuals to contract with someone who was undocumented.
- A provision that criminalized failing to register one’s immigration status.
CP: HB 56 has been law since 2011. How has it damaged Alabama?
AW: HB 56 did everything its authors intended. It hurt undocumented immigrants where they lived, worked, worshiped, prayed, and went to school. HB 56 created mass confusion and outright terror for people without papers in Alabama. Anytime they drove a car, they were at risk of arrest and deportation. HB 56 created a state of mass confusion and outright terror for people without proper papers in Alabama. Many families disappeared overnight; thriving churches became virtually empty in a week’s time.
Most immigrant families were faced with shattering decisions. Should they split their families up, leaving those who were citizens in Alabama and the rest fleeing to relative safety somewhere else? Or should they stay together in this place they call home, living in constant fear that a broken headlight or a roadblock would lead to detention and deportation?
Those who stayed were fearful of law enforcement. Victims of crime often would not report it for fear of being deported. One mother was afraid to report the rape of her 14-year-old daughter. Victims of the tornadoes were fearful of seeking help. One mother was afraid to go to the hospital to give birth.
Where neighbors had once lived in peace, HB 56 fueled the flames of hostilities. Suddenly school librarians, grocery store cashiers, school book fair volunteers, quick-mart clerks, court reporters and interpreters all became self-appointed enforcement agents, policing anyone who appeared to be from south of the border.
The law prevented undocumented immigrants from receiving state or local public services—drivers licenses, business licenses, car tags, mobile home licenses. Some people were even denied water service. The innocent act of seeking work became a crime. Renting an apartment was now a felony. One of the most insidious provisions rendered all contracts with undocumented persons null and void.
School children expressed the hurt in letters to the Alabama governor Robert Bentley:
Dear Governor, Don’t take my parents, my parents are good people. I do not want to separate from my friends. I’m a good little girl. From a girl who is sad about not moving and does not want to separate from her family.
Dear Governor, We don’t want the new law. All my friends have left and my mom, she can’t take us to the doctor appointments because of the law. She’s scared because of the law. My mom cries all the time because of the law. I don’t want my parents took away. I had a happy life in Albertville. All my teachers cry because we are all leaving. I don’t want to leave.
Block the law, please please don’t separate my family! If they send me to Mexico, they will kill me. Who is going to take care of me if you take my parents?
Dear Robert Bentley, Why did you put the HB 56? At first they said this is a free country. If you were an immigrant and you got to another country and you liked it there, you would not want to go from that place. I’m scared because if the police got my parents or family, I’m going to have to stay alone in my house. If your parents were immigrants and you are not, what would happen to you?
Robert Bentley, Hi. My name is Tammy Rodriguez. I go to Slocumb Elementary School. I’m so scared about this law, because I was an A/B honor girl but not anymore because I’m making bad grades, because I can’t stop thinking about my mom. My mom always came home late but I think the cops took her away from me. Please stop this law because I’m worried! Please stop this law.
P.S. Sometimes I don’t concentrate in school.
States need an immigration reform, but this is not the way to treat immigrants, which by the way if you know your history, this country is made up of immigrants. Repeal HB 56, the future of US.
CP: How did ACIJ block HB 56’s most harmful parts?
AW: A lawsuit dismantled it section by section, thanks to a brilliant legal team.
CP: Now that ACIJ has secured this victory, what is the coalition tackling next?
AW: We celebrate this legal victory for the relief it brings to our undocumented immigrant brothers and sisters. We also celebrate the more hospitable climate that is growing thanks to the education and organizing efforts of the Alabama Coalition for Immigration Justice and countless congregations, organizations and individuals.
When HB 56 passed in 2011, there were no organized grassroots Latino immigrant groups around the state that could stand up for their communities. Now there are 15 established grassroots immigrant groups plus emerging immigrant leaders representing a total of 23 communities. There is a formal statewide Leadership Council representing all of ACIJ’s grassroots groups across the state. Each group works to develop leadership locally and to assist other groups; they work together to advocate for just and fair policies and practices affecting their families and communities. This organizing will continue.
The urgency for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform with an earned path to legalization cannot be understated. While Congress delays action, 1,000 people are deported each day. We must warn that the SAFE Act under consideration by the House of Representatives is simply HB 56 writ large – it would allow states to pass their own versions of HB 56. This kind of “immigration reform” would be disastrous for the country. Alabama has always had much to teach the country about having to correct course after taking tragic moral missteps. Congress needs to learn from the lessons of HB 56, and enact just, humane immigration reform that will withstand the tests of constitutionality and conscience. We are working on this!