Civil rights déjà vu for Birmingham in immigrant rights struggle

By Khalil Abdullah, New America Media

At a tender age, Victor Palafox would revel in the brief daily reunions with his father, but he recalls growing angry with himself for falling asleep. That happened often, while he waited the senior Palafox to return home from working shifts of 12 hours or more in Mexico City.

One day the youthful Palafox's anger gave way to fear as he watched his father pack a few belongings and "a bit of money," as he prepared to cross the border into the United States to risk securing a better economic future. "I was young, but I knew that might be the last time I ever saw him," he said.

The family was reunited years later in America and eventually prospered. Like many immigrants, documented or not, Palafox (in photo), now 19, calls the U.S. "my country." He adds, "I fell in love with the South."

Meanest, Toughest Immigration Law

That love is no longer perceived as mutual, not in Alabama at least, and most certainly not among families who face stark choices as a result of HB 56. Enacted in June, the law is deemed to be the most restrictive state legislation targeting undocumented immigrants.

"We brag about Alabama having the meanest and toughest immigration law in the country," said Bernard Simelton, Sr., president, NAACP Alabama State Conference. He pledged his organization would "challenge the law in the courts and the streets and at the ballot box."

Palafox and Simelton joined other panelists from the region's ethnic media to recount the city's rich civil rights history and the impact of HB 56 on the daily lives of residents. The symposium, held earlier in November, explored how diverse media outlets could best educate the state's population.

Hosted by New America Media at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the gathering included representatives of Birmingham-area news organizations from African American, Chinese, Latino and South Asian communities, as well as other local media and guests from as far as Mobile on the Gulf Coast.

Palafox spoke on behalf of Alabama Dreamers for the Future, a multiethnic, youth-led organization formed earlier this year to promote enlightened immigration policies and oppose the bill.

He and other panelists described witnessing immigrants packing their belongings to leave the state after Republican Gov. Robert Bentley signed the law. The GOP's majority in both houses of Alabama's legislature drafted and passed HB 56.

However, because undocumented people may reside in households with relatives holding American citizenship, "We have U.S. citizens that we are driving out of our state," said Rev. Angie Wright, of Greater Birmingham Ministries.

Wright posed the dilemma facing families with mixed legal status among their members, who are forced to ask themselves, "Do we leave? Do we leave together? Do we stay?"

No Contracts With "Aliens"

Isabel Rubio, executive director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, said the goal of HB 56 was "to make Alabama so inhospitable that many immigrants would deport themselves."

Although provisions of the law are subject to legal challenges, until decisions and appeals work their way through the courts, Alabamians must monitor interactions previously taken for granted.

Section 27 of the law, for instance, states, "No court of this state shall enforce the terms of, or otherwise regard as valid, any contract between a party and an alien unlawfully present in the United States."

This provision is generating uncertainty about whether anyone can receive municipal services, such as water, in households where an undocumented person may reside. It also casts doubt on a broad range of human interactions that can be construed as contracts.

Wright noted that a woman receiving child support, for example, might now be at risk of losing those funds, if she or her child's father's immigrant status were unresolved.

Undocumented mothers considering fleeing Alabama or the U.S. are now uncertain of the legal validity of a designated guardian, if they decide their American-born children would be better off in this country and wish to entrust them to a friend or relative in Alabama.

Another clause in HR 56 allows teachers and schools to question children about the legal status of their parents and relatives. As a result some families are withdrawing young children from school, despite their right to an elementary and secondary education under federal law.

Wright said she knows families afraid to take their children to school. If authorities raid their homes during a school day, she said, "Their kids might come back to an empty house."

Maricela Garcia, a domestic laborer from Oaxaca, Mexico, apologized for not coming to the United States in "the right way" in 2000. She said she is afraid to pick up her seven-year-old son from school for fear of a police stop. However, she feels she has no choice but to try remaining in the United States because there are so few job opportunities in Mexico.

Because HB 56 portends that almost any interchange could result in an encounter with law enforcement authorities, women are especially vulnerable to domestic violence. Rubio and Wright described women too frightened to report a crime against them or a family member. They fear that a police investigation might expose them or a loved one to detention and deportation.

Wright said the effects of HB 56 are "unconscionable," particularly given the trauma and "impossible choices that mothers have made to get here."

Media Need More Facts

Media representatives at the Birmingham symposium agreed that powerful stories, such as those of Palafox and Garcia, put a human face on the consequences of HB 56. But some said substantive reporting also requires better data than is now available.

Ignacio Guajardo, editor and publisher of Paisano, a Latino newspaper, said, "The point is that we are media -- we don't have facts." Without more information, he said, it is unrealistic to be able accurately inform readers about what to do or what to expect. It also would be difficult to make the case to Alabama's business community that HB 56 is shortsighted and will yield a disastrous financial impact, as occurred in Arizona after legislators there passed a similar bill. The author of that bill, Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce, a Republican, was recalled in Tuesday's election.

Panelists and community organizers who attended the Alabama symposium emphasized it is still too soon to determine measurable effects of HB 56. They conceded their organizations would be hard pressed to produce timely analysis because of their limited resources.

After Rev. Anthony Johnson recounted Birmingham's central role in the civil rights struggle, Guajardo questioned whether the immigrant-rights movement is analogous. He noted that African Americans were "citizens asking for rights," adding "it's not the same situation," although human rights are inviolate.

Johnson, the community relations director of the NAACP-Metro-Birmingham Chapter, said he has urged the Latino and African-American communities to unite for years. "Illegal and legal immigrants alike are being targeted by racist, bigoted, hate-filled and politically motivated legislators," he contended, adding that a moral imperative is as central to the current struggle for justice as it was in the past.
However, it is still uncertain how HB 56 is resonating within the African-American community. An attendee from Mobile said that south of Montgomery, the state capital, "social organizing dies out. For the average black person in Mobile and in Pritchard, where I live, [HB 56] is not an issue."

At the conclusion of the event, the media agreed to continue their nascent collaboration by establishing the Alabama News Network. ANN will be an information exchange where news, stories, data and a databank of resources would be shared among participants. New America Media representatives who attended agreed to lend their organization's expertise drawn from developing similar collaborations in other states.

The agreement to launch ANN affirmed a sentiment expressed by Rubio: Although Alabama's Latino community may have been the intended target of HB 56, its perniciousness will permeate every household, regardless of ethnic origin.

As during the civil rights movement, media can potentially become a powerful megaphone for social justice. "We need you," Rubio said simply, "to tell the stories in our communities."

(Photo of Victor Palafox by Khalil Abdullah via New America Media.)