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You cannot discuss the Civil Rights Movement without talking about Alabama and I often wonder what the state would look like today if it weren’t for the activists who risked their lives to ensure that equal rights were given to African Americans. Many Latinos are hesitant to draw parallels between the experience of African Americans in the state 60 years ago and the treatment of undocumented immigrants today as a result of HB 56. They do not want it to appear as if they are appropriating the experiences of African Americans, but African American leaders in the state are quick to point out the similarities, contending that HB 56 denies unauthorized immigrants and their families, including their US-born children, basic rights, threatening their access to everyday necessities and equal protection of the law. To some in the state, that seems a little too familiar.
Director Chris Weitz, the man behind the film “A Better Life”, which tells the story of an undocumented day-laborer, created a series of videos featuring Alabama citizens discussing how HB 56 has impacted them. One of the videos, entitled “What Alabama Knows About Civil Rights”, features former Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District, U.W. Clemons, speaking at the16th Street Baptist Church, saying the state has “turned on the new Negros.”
Given the state’s history, I assumed those in Alabama would fight tooth and nail to ensure that basic rights weren’t denied to a segment of its population, but upon first inspection it seemed I assumed incorrectly- and I was shocked by the inaction of the people. Each night I spent in the rural town of Arley, I watched the news hoping to catch a glimpse of some sort of protest. I wanted to connect with students in the state who were fighting HB 56, but they didn’t seem to exist.
I left the state discouraged. Not only were many in Alabama unaware of HB 56, but those who knew of it didn’t seem to care. The general consensus seemed to be that if it didn’t directly affect their life, why should they care?
Before leaving for the south I was aware of Isaac Barrera, a 21-year-old community organizer and Pasadena City College student who was detained in Alabama along with 24-year-old activist Jonathan Perez. The pair drove to Alabama with three other activists to participate in a courageous action. Within hours of each other, Barrera and Perez walked into a Border Patrol office in Mobile, AL, expressing their disagreement with Department of Homeland Security policies. When asked by officers why it mattered to them, they responded, “Because I’m undocumented.”
President Obama currently holds the record for the most deportations of any president, averaging nearly 400,000 a year. The Obama administration has always claimed to have a hands-off approach when it comes to detaining immigrant youth who participate in acts of civil disobedience. In October 2011, President Obama said his administration prioritizes enforcement, not “chasing after” those who would otherwise qualify for legal status if the DREAM Act passed, instead deporting those with serious criminal convictions or those who have previous deportations on their record.
Barrera wanted to see if this was true, so when he presented himself to Border Patrol officials without a team of legal savvy organizers behind him, he discovered that the Obama administration does not abide by its own policies.
“The Obama administration is lying when it says it’s not sending non-criminals through deportation proceedings,” Barrera said. “If you show that you are politically aware and knowledgeable of your rights, they won’t take you, but when you are alone and vulnerable, they take you.”
Within hours, Barrera and Perez were transferred to a prison in Louisiana and then sent to a detention center in the state. Barrera describes the center as “a warehouse for human beings,” filled with bunk beds and just four toilets and showers for 70 men. Using the center’s phone for just 20 minutes would result in a fee of $100, making it difficult for those being detained to speak to their family or obtain legal advice.
Barrera and others like him are part of a growing movement of young activists, brought to the U.S. as children, who are now coming out as undocumented and unafraid.
“Coming out as undocumented and connecting with a network makes you safer. I understand that coming out in a state like Alabama is more complicated, but I would also argue it’s more necessary,” Barrera said. “When they talk about ‘illegals’ in Alabama, they talk about us like we’re dirt. We are human beings. We laugh, we love, we work hard and we want the same things as anyone else. Laws like HB 56 dehumanize us; they terrorize communities and families, so to me, the risk of speaking out is better than the alternative.”
When I returned from Alabama I happened to read a paragraph-long news story about a group of college students in Birmingham who were organizing “A Week of Direct Action Against HB 56″. I frantically e-mailed random press contacts at the participating schools and left multiple voicemails. Someone from the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB) eventually responded, telling me that a student named William Anderson was participating and willing to speak to me. As it turned out, Anderson was the key that unlocked everything I hoped to hear about those in the state who were speaking out against HB 56.
Anderson was born and raised in Birmingham, AL and at just 22, the social work major is a reluctant leader of the most consolidated student movement the state has seen since the Civil Rights Movement.
When Arizona passed the controversial anti-immigrant legislation SB 1070, Anderson knew that harsh laws for the undocumented would become a trend- a trend that Alabama would surely follow.
“When HB 56 was in the House, I told my friends that if it passed I’d be in the streets marching, protesting, and causing a ruckus,” Anderson said. “So here I am, causing a ruckus.”
Upon speaking to Anderson, a whole world of activism in Alabama opened up. I realized it wasn’t that no one in the state was doing anything; it was that the state’s media wasn’t reporting on their actions. Marches were being held, undocumented immigrants were coming out of the shadows, and students like Anderson were organizing and protesting. Anderson even made a video reaching out to Kanye West, hoping the rapper would speak out against HB 56 the way he did with SB 1070. In the video Anderson says silence is a form of compliance, implying that not speaking out against the law suggests you are in support of it. Efforts such as these garnered very little media attention in the state.
According to Anderson, HB 56 has brought to light many problems in the state of Alabama. The news media, seemingly more concerned with painting a picture-perfect portrait of the state, fails to report on the controversial law with any regularity. Anderson also says many in the state aren’t informed. When applying for a permit at City Hall in Birmingham, the woman behind the desk didn’t even know what HB 56 was or why Anderson and his fellow students would be protesting it.
“There’s a child-like mentality that’s really prevalent of the Right in Alabama. They vote the way their pastor and politicians tell them to, instead of asking questions and doing their own research. Questioning things is a basic cognitive function and unless this state starts making an effort to be more informed, it’s always going to be like this,” Anderson said. “People here are self-conscious about how the rest of the country sees them. They don’t want the state to be seen as dumb, backwards, and unprogressive, but then something like HB 56 passes and there is no outrage- they don’t do anything, making us look dumb, backwards, and unprogressive. We can’t keep electing people to office that make us look bad.”
Senator Scott Beason, who led the charge on HB 56, is indeed making the state of Alabama look bad. Beason has become known for his racist remarks, calling Black Americans “aborigines” and urging the state to “empty the clip” on undocumented immigrants. What does it mean when the majority of citizens in a state allow a reported racist to pass a law that terrorizes the undocumented? There are no easy answers, but Anderson believes the best place to start in solving the problem is to get people like Beason out of office.
“The politicians who voted for HB 56 need to be kicked out of office and they don’t deserve any respect as human beings,” Anderson said. “If you voted for this, you have little humanity and your ability to do your job should come into question. I want people to know that there are those of us in the state who are angry and we’re going to keep pushing until HB 56 is repealed.”
I know immigration is a topic that divides the country and I don’t claim to have any answers as to how the U.S. should approach immigration reform. What I do know, is that the current system is broken. I know that no human being is “illegal.” I know that when you call a person “illegal” it strips them of their humanity, making it easier to exploit them and deny their rights. I know HB 56 is wrong. It’s wrong to target young children and it’s wrong to rip apart families.
No matter your feelings on immigration, I encourage empathy. I encourage you to consider what you would do for your children if your country of origin provided little in the way of economic stability and educational opportunities. I encourage you to think about what you would do to take care of your family and if the answer is anything, I hope you can see that you have more in common with undocumented immigrants than you might think.
Editor’s note:â??The following is the second and final part of Downey resident Tina Vasquez’s visit to Alabama.
Published: March 22, 2012 – Volume 10 – Issue 49