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For almost six years I've been visiting Alabama on a regular basis. My boyfriend, who was born and raised in the state, grew up going to Smith Lake, so for vacations we rent a cabin on the lake in the very small, very rural town of Arley.
Like most native Angelenos who've never visited the Deep South, I was apprehensive and nervous about my first trip to Alabama. There are many unfair perceptions that swirl around southerners, but my anxiety resulted from the idea that I'd be spending time in a rural area that lacked the diversity I'd grown accustomed to.
Despite growing up worlds apart, my white mother, with her working class southern roots, and my Mexican father, who grew up impoverished and the youngest of 12 siblings, had a lot in common. When they got married it was the first time someone on my father's side of the family married a white person and it was the first time on my mother's side of the family that someone married a person of color. Growing up in the Los Angeles area, I never considered my mixed ethnicity usual. Though it's true that I spent my younger years trying to figure out where I fit in, feeling and looking "too white" for the Mexican kids and "too Mexican" for the white kids, my appearance is what can only be described as racially ambiguous. Most people I meet say they assumed I was "some type of Latino" or "mixed", but that they couldn't quite identify me as Mexican.
I've come to embrace the duality that was my upbringing and that is my very existence, but that also means that I've had to recognize the privileges that I've experienced being a Latina with light skin and ambiguous features. Again, in the cultural melting pot that is the Los Angeles area, being biracial has never really been an issue, but going to Alabama was the first time that I really felt out of a place.
In many of the areas of the state I've visited, I've been shocked by the lack of cultural diversity. In Los Angeles and its surrounding areas I am not conscious of race, but while in towns like Arley I often notice that I go days without seeing a single person of color or even someone who has dark features similar to mine. I've gone my whole life living in the state of California where being Mexican had never made me feel out of place, but in the town of Arley I could feel people staring at me. For a while I thought I was just being paranoid or self-conscious because I was uncomfortable with my surroundings, but a few interactions made me realize that my feelings weren't the result of paranoia.
Each time I visit the city of Arley, I stay in the same cabin. Each time I book this cabin, the woman who speaks to me makes note of my "unusual" last name, noting that it's easy to find me in the database because my name is so "memorable." I brushed this off, joking that only in Alabama would Vasquez be an unusual last name. Then, one day while grocery shopping in the larger city of Jasper, the woman who was checking out my groceries asked me where I was from, noting that I didn't look like I was from around there.
I wondered if I, a light-skinned Latina, was an oddity in areas of Alabama, what must it be like for Latinos in the state who can't pass as white or racially ambiguous? If it was difficult then, the June 2011 passage of the Hammon-Beason Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, otherwise known as HB 56, made it a whole lot worse.
Despite just 2.5 percent of the state's population being undocumented, Alabama passed HB 56, which is the harshest anti-immigrant bill in the country. Portions of the bill have been suspended, though as it remains, HB 56 essentially makes it a crime to be without status. As originally passed, the bill mandated that public schools check the legal status of their students, abrogating any contact made with an undocumented immigrant, and making it a felony for undocumented immigrants to contract with a government entity - in plain English, that meant that a utilities company was committing a felony for providing something as basic as water or electricity to the home of an undocumented person. The most controversial aspect of the law, however, still remains, enabling Law enforcement to stop and check the papers of anyone suspected of being undocumented. Essentially, making racial profiling legal.
Once the legislation passed, the areas of the state populated by undocumented immigrants were left like ghost towns. Entire families picked up and left over night, leaving all of their furnishings and personal belongings behind. Spanish-speaking church services were left without their congregations. Young children spent their school days crying and confused, wondering why their friends had disappeared in the middle of the night. It was clear why they fled: the environment had been made too harsh, the fear of deportation too real. Check points were now in place in certain areas of the state and if you were pulled over and unable to provide documentation, you would immediately undergo deportation proceedings. As a result, families are being torn apart and the U.S.-born children of undocumented parents are being left without any family at all.
If you watched the Republican presidential debate in late January, you might have heard presidential hopeful Mitt Romney discussing the concept of 'self-deportation' otherwise known as 'attrition through enforcement'. The concept of self-deportation - and the strategy behind legislation like HB 56- is that lawmakers want to make life as difficult as humanly possible for immigrants so that they're forced to leave. HB 56 essentially makes every aspect of everyday life, like working, driving a car, or renting a house, illegal if you're undocumented.
As mentioned previously, the strategy, in part, worked. Many fled the state the very same night the legislation passed, but what lawmakers didn't realize was that the exodus of undocumented immigrants would deeply affect the state's economy.
A new study from economist Dr. Samuel Addy, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama, provides evidence that "HB 56 has been, and will continue to be an economic disaster for the state of Alabama." According to Dr. Addy, "Instead of boosting state economic growth, the law is certain to be a drag on economic development even without considering costs associated with its implementation and enforcement."
The immediate effects of the law were felt most strongly by farmers who were left with acres of unpicked crops rotting in fields after farm workers fled the state. Months later, it appears as if American citizens residing in Alabama believe the work to be too difficult or not worth the effort because farmers are still struggling to replace the undocumented workers who fled, doing little for the argument that undocumented immigrants are taking jobs that American citizens would otherwise gladly take.
Dr. Addy's other findings also revealed that by driving some immigrants out of the state and others underground, the law will damage the economy by shrinking demand for the goods and services that Alabama businesses provide. Dr. Addy estimates that HB 56 will shrink the state's GDP by at least $2.3 billion and possibly as much as $10.8 billion.
Those in the state who support the legislation have turned to Alabama's declining unemployment rate as proof that the law is working, but according to Dr. Addy, "Recent data show employment falling in the four sectors that are often alleged to employ migrant and unauthorized workers," continuing that the law will ultimately cost Alabama 70,000-140,000 jobs.
In an unlikely twist, HB 56 is also bringing to light inaccuracies commonly believed by those in favor of anti-immigrant legislation. A major misconception is that undocumented immigrants don't pay taxes. This, of course, is false. HB 56 is actually costing the state of Alabama $57-$265 million in state taxes, with an additional $20-$90 million loss in local sales taxes.
It had been months since I'd been to Alabama and after the passage of HB 56 I was appalled at the state for passing such harsh, unconstitutional legislation. I was even more upset at those who lived in Alabama for not publicly opposing HB 56, for not protesting in the streets, for not making it clear to anyone who would listen that this law wasn't representative of who they were as human beings. Here on the West Coast my activist friends and I discussed the great disappointment we felt in the state's college students, the heavy hearts we experienced upon realizing that they really didn't seem bothered by the fact that people in their state were being stripped of basic human rights. I guess we expected more from the young people in the state.
Despite my anger with Alabama, I decided to go back. I wanted to see if there had been a noticeable change after HB 56; I wanted to talk to people in the state about why they didn't care that all of this was happening, but what I discovered on my trip to post-HB 56 Alabama shocked me.
The second and final part of Tina Vasquez's story on Alabama will publish next week.
Published: March 15, 2012 - Volume 10 - Issue 48