Plaintiffs Discuss Alabama’s HB 56: Interviews with Isabel Rubio and Angela Wright
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?
Rubio: We’re stronger than we ever have been, but when you say organizations—there really aren’t that many. We’re the oldest, and we’re 12 years old. We’re grateful for our national partners at the National Council of La Raza. While there’s not another affiliate in Alabama, we do have organizations in Tennessee and across the Southeast that we can work with and learn best practices. I think we’re better than we ever been, and I think it’s because, while people are afraid, people are also saying, “Hey, wait a minute. We’ve been here for so long and we are making contributions.” Hopefully, we are beginning to see people who are willing to step out and speak up.
Altschuler: What is the hardest thing about organizing in Alabama?
Rubio: Just getting folks to get through that fear—to come out and stand up. It’s easy to come out in a big action, because there’s safety in numbers. But the everyday, in-and-out of getting people to do work alongside us, is difficult. But we’re getting better—we see the community advancing that way.
Wright: Well, we’re in Alabama—there’s not a lot of infrastructure or experience of organizing here. That may sound kind of strange given the civil rights history here, but a lot of organizing in Alabama has been built around charismatic leaders with a movement behind them—and not always building an infrastructure that lasts. Even a state like Mississippi has more of a model of community organizing there than we have here. Hostility towards the poor, racism and xenophobia are also always issues here.
Altschuler: With this law, there’s a concern that people are going to leave or have already started to leave. To what extent would that erode the bases of support that you’ve developed?
Rubio: People have begun to leave, but I think that the folks that are choosing to stay are the ones that want to fight. While we might lose some good folks, we’ll still have a lot of good folks here who are willing to fight the good fight.
Wright: Sadly, we’re already hearing that people are leaving. The law’s already working. It’s already achieving its purpose—to run people out of the state. People are fleeing, because they’re already being terrorized. One thing I really fear is creating a climate of hatred and giving permission for violence. This kind of law creates the climate for violence—it gives permission for it.
Altschuler: Let’s move to your personal stories. What are your organization’s origins and how did you became involved?
Rubio: I was one of HICA’s founders, and that came out of my personal history. I’m the granddaughter of a Mexican immigrant, and I grew up in Mississippi post-1960s—after the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act. My first-grade class was the first class that was integrated. Growing up in Mississippi, in a county that saw more church bombings than anywhere else in the country in 1964, and being born three weeks before Bloody Sunday had an impact on me that I didn’t even realize until I found myself in Birmingham in the early 1990s. As a social worker, I began to work across the community, and I saw how Latinos were coming to Birmingham. For me, the social work aspect, and my history from the South and Mexico came together. In Birmingham, the question was: in this birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, what are we going to do to be different for a new community? At the hearing, it was really poignant to be standing there in the federal courthouse just a block from Kelly Ingram Park, where the fire hoses and the dogs were let loose on black children.
Wright: My congregation is Beloved Community United Church of Christ, and we’re a member of GBM [Greater Birmingham Ministries]. My congregation is multi-racial, multi-cultural and very diverse economically. I started my congregation in 2000, but I started out as a community organizer. GBM started in the 1960s as a faith-based community organization sponsored by several denominations. From the beginning, unlike a lot of urban ministries, GBM had a justice side and a direct services side. There’s always been an intentional focus to meet the needs of the poor, but at the same time to try to address the root causes of why people are poor. That’s taken us into a myriad of issues and fights—working with people who are affected by whatever issue we’re working on and helping them develop the strategy and their own voice.
Altschuler: What has your organization’s role been in the fight against HB 56?
Rubio: We were working to educate the legislators about how this was detrimental to the state. And we worked to help build capacity in the community—registering people to vote so that we can have folks voting in legislators who are more educated. Unfortunately, the work has been mostly reactive, because we have so little capacity. We work a lot with Alabama Appleseed—the two organizations co-lead the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice—and they’ve been much more on the ground doing state policy work in Montgomery.
Also, there was an event at the end of March at the statehouse in Montgomery, where we had 200 people show up. And there have been lots of rallies across the state since the law was signed. And, at every opportunity we have to get in front of the community—whether it’s about why you need to file income taxes or other financial literacy or “Know Your Rights” trainings—everybody is hungry for information around this law. So that’s really beginning to galvanize people. We’ve seen more activity in the state than we ever have.
Wright: HICA and GBM were instrumental in organizing for the June 25 rally against the law. We had at least 4,000 people come out and got 3,300 people to sign a petition. That next Tuesday, the Birmingham City Council passed a resolution asking the state to repeal the law. The speeches that every black member in the council made about the law were so inspired, and connected this law to the history of segregation and Jim Crow. I thought that was a tremendously important thing to help the whole community make the connection.
Another thing that’s really key for us after the ruling is that, because of what’s happened, a lot of people really do know about HB 56, but most of the state knows nothing about the federal immigration system. They don’t know how it works, and how it doesn’t work. They know very little about immigrants, so everyone’s running on stereotypes.
*Daniel Altschuler is a contributing blogger to AQ Online and has written extensively on U.S. immigration politics for publications including theChristian Science Monitor, The Nation, CNN, and Dissent. He holds a doctorate in politics from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. To read more of his writing, visit danielaltschuler.com.