Judge Sharon Blackburn recently issued a one-month preliminary injunction to prevent Alabama’s controversial immigration law, HB 56, from taking effect at the beginning of this month. The judge has now given herself until September 29 to issue another injunction or allow the law to stand. HB 56 faces three lawsuits—one from a group of civil and immigrant rights groups in Alabama, a second from the Department of Justice and a third from several bishops.
Representatives of two plaintiffs in the first lawsuit—Isabel Rubio, executive director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (¡HICA!) and Reverend Angie Wright, Faith in Community Coordinator of the Greater Birmingham Ministries (GBM)—discuss the context behind HB 56, their organizations’ objections to the law, how groups within the state have responded, and the ongoing challenges for organizing immigrants in Alabama.
Interview by AQ Contributing Blogger Daniel Altschuler.
Daniel Altschuler: What is the background to the current legislative battle?
Isabel Rubio: Since 2007, we have been working to keep this type of law at bay. And finally, now, here we are. Other work we have done has included building relationships with law enforcement—because law enforcement on the ground understands the need to have relationships with the immigrant community. In some counties and municipalities it’s been more difficult than others, but great strides have been made. This law demolishes all of that work.
Watch a Slideshow from the August 2011 Hearing on Alabama’s HB 56
Photos: Courtesy of Daniel Altschuler
Altschuler: What were your principal objections to HB 56?
Rubio: The whole law enforcement piece destroys the community trust with police. And we work a lot with victims of domestic violence—how are we going to get these women safe in abusive situations [if they’re too scared to call the police because they may check their immigration status]? The other piece is the fear that it creates around sending folks to school—we know that moms and dads are concerned. We’ve gotten calls that some folks aren’t sending their kids to school. And the racial profiling piece is huge—that says that the people we want in Alabama are only people who look a certain way.
Angie Wright: As a plaintiff, our standing comes from the harboring and transporting provisions. As our attorneys interpret the law, harboring and transporting in the Alabama law is not interpreted the way it is in the federal law, where it means that you’re smuggling people in. Here it was written so that, if you know that someone is in your building or you’re driving someone anywhere and you know that they’re undocumented, then you’re committing a crime. If you’re helping up to nine people, it’s a misdemeanor. If you’re helping 10 or more knowing that they’re undocumented, it’s a Class C felony and punishable with up to $15,000 [in fines] and 10 years in prison. It criminalizes the practice of the faith of all of our supporting faith communities, and criminalizes every single act of mercy that we do—giving food out and welcoming undocumented people into this building is “harboring,” as we understand the law. Even though the judge said that would never be enforced in Alabama, that is what the legislative intent was. That is what Representative Micky Hammon [sponsor of HB 56] said in the public hearings about the bill. He told one Unitarian minister in the hearing that if clergy have undocumented individuals in their worship services, the clergy and the undocumented people would be arrested. The intention was to shut down any assistance to undocumented immigrants.
Altschuler: Why was the law able to pass?
Rubio: It passed because of the change in the legislative make-up. Our legislature changed dramatically. For the first time in over 100 years in the 2010 elections, it shifted to Republican control. I think previously we were able to keep that kind of law away because of that. But, at the end of the day, this goes back to the reluctance of the federal government to do something about this at the federal level—immigration needs to be dealt with at the federal level, and that’s something that needs to happen. We understand the frustration at the local level with the lack of action at the federal level.
Wright: The legislators really thought that Alabamians would agree with it, and that they would get a lot of political points for doing it. They saw it as equivalent to being tough on crime by being tough on immigrants. And I think they were taking pride in saying they’d passed the toughest law in the nation.
Altschuler: How would you characterize the strength of grassroots immigrant organizing efforts in Alabama?