This dispatch comes from Carol Wang (JD ’13), co-director of Harvard Immigration Project‘s Bond Hearing Project:
This Spring Break, six Harvard Law students traveled to Alabama to study the state’s immigration law. (Watch the video from our trip here.) The Hammond-Beason Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, or HB 56 for short, makes it a felony for an undocumented immigrant to enter into a “business transaction” with a state or “political subdivision of a state”; invalidates all past, current, and future contracts with undocumented immigrants; authorizes police to stop, ticket, and arrest any person they “reasonably suspect” to be an undocumented immigrant; makes it a crime to “conceal, harbor, or shield” any undocumented immigrant; and creates a civil enforcement action by private citizens to report undocumented immigrants.
It was Friday, our fifth day in Alabama. It was a downcast day with the threat of rain and the weather mirrored my mood. Over the course of the previous four days, Jacqueline Pierluisi (JD ’12), David Baake (JD ’14), and I had met with a wide range of people with expertise in HB 56, including a judge, a district attorney, community organizers, lawyers, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official, and undocumented immigrants.
What we saw and heard was a side of America that was hostile and unfamiliar. Both undocumented and documented immigrants have been targeted by the law. Police officials stop, ticket, and detain drivers they “reasonably” suspect to be an undocumented immigrants, effectively conducting the same kind of racial profiling that is prohibited in other states.
In the weeks immediately following the passage of the act, many families were afraid to leave the house, even to go to the grocery store, because they had heard that purchasing basic food items were “business transactions” that were now crimes. One community organizer told us that 911 operators do not respond to telephone calls made in broken English, with an operator once explaining that HB 56 forbade them from providing emergency care for undocumented immigrants.
On that fifth day, we stepped into a small home in Tuscaloosa, expecting to hear similar stories. We were meeting with the founders and members of Somos Tuskaloosa, an organization formed in the aftermath of HB 56 to inform, mobilize, and serve undocumented immigrants. When we asked Somos Tuskaloosa about HB 56, at first they shared the same sentiment, the feeling of fear – fear of driving, fear they could be stopped at any time, fear of getting sick because not only would they lose their job but they would also be unable to receive medical care. These Tuscaloosa residents had extra reason to feel unsettled. A tornado last April had torn apart their city, and traces of the devastation were still evident almost a year later.
But when we asked them what they were doing about all of this, their voices were animated and their faces were bright. They told us about all the different people with whom they were working. In the tornado’s aftermath, some of them trained and served as part of the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) to build shelters for all those Tuscaloosa citizens who had lost their homes. In HB 56’s wake, Somos Tuskaloosa’s founder Gwen Ferreti also described building relationships with “uncommon allies” such as police and law enforcement officials. Some officials had told them they would not enforce a law they found unjust.
Somos Tuskaloosa and Gwen’s words of collaboration and coordination reinforced what other community organizers had told us. HICA community organizer Victor Spinezzi told us that HB 56 galvanized previously disparate Hispanic interest groups to finally form the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ACIJ). Alabama Appleseed attorney Zayne Smith told us how ACIJ was working with multiple audiences to accomplish a repeal of the law: creating a media “blitz” to educate the broader public, organizing faith-based events such as vigils for those directly hurt by the law, launching know-your-rights campaigns to educate and empower community members, as well as bringing a lawsuit challenging the law as unconstitutional in the courts. And we found another powerful example of collaboration in the previous weekend’s civil rights march in Montgomery, where African American groups, worker organizations, and Latino American coalitions all joined together to condemn HB 56 “for invoking inhumanity reminiscent of Jim Crow laws“.
That day in Tuscaloosa showed us that despite HB 56’s aim to divide the residents of Alabama, meaningful collaborations were taking root. These stories helped lift the week’s grey skies and stories, reminding us that even the worst situations can bring out our country’s best qualities – working together and helping our neighbors.