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Immigration in Alabama: An issue guide for voters

In April of 2022, Reckon and partners including Essential PartnersCortico, and Bridge Alliance, hosted conversations with Alabamians under 40 about the future of their state for a project called Bridge Alabama. This guide focuses on an issue raised in those conversations.

Here is one of the comments that inspired this reporting. From Amanda, in our April 12 session:

“One of my specific hopes is for equity for immigrants in Alabama. And I work with a lot of Latinx clients, and have a lot of friends who are undocumented, and they face a lot of challenges across the country. But Alabama, especially, it’s like you can’t get a driver’s license if you’re undocumented, or there’s this stigma of seeing someone who speaks Spanish in the grocery store or racism involved as well. And I have big dreams about no ICE in Birmingham or in Alabama. I could go on and on.

But, yeah, just that people could live in safety and security with their families, and live a fruitful life no matter where you’re from, no matter who you are. So I think that applies to everyone, but especially ... not especially, but I’m just highlighting the hope I have for immigrant rights.

And, oh, I think I was supposed tell a story. So I was just going to mention that, in 2011, when Alabama passed HB 56, the anti-immigrant law, that’s kind of when I first really got involved in organizing or activism, and met a lot of people that I’m still friends with today, and people that I work with today, now on the other side as an organizer. I just think that the thing that still gives me hope is that we can come together as a community, and we can fight for justice together. And, yeah, even if it’s really hard to get that justice, at least we’re building beautiful relationships.”

Over 100 years ago, Alabama’s foreign-born population was made up primarily of white Europeans and represented less than 1% of the overall population.

Some came out of necessity, escaping famine, poverty, and unemployment in a then disjointed Europe. They were brought by the promise of opportunity in an increasingly industrialized United States.

Today, Alabama’s migrant population looks significantly different and has doubled since the 1990s.

Compared to the large immigrant populations on the coasts, Alabama is home to a small immigrant population. About 3% of the state’s 4.89 million people are foreign-born, according to a 2018 analysis by the Washington DC-based American Immigration Council.

That works out to about 150,000 and 175,000 people.

Around 25% come from Mexico, while the rest are made up of people from Guatemala, China and India to name a few. More than half of those people are concentrated around Birmingham and the three other large cities. Less than half live in rural areas.

Approximately a third are undocumented and are largely excluded from society. They aren’t supposed to work or drive. Their children are allowed to attend local schools.

What are the challenges?

Alabama hasn’t always been kind to immigrants, especially those who are undocumented.

For example, in a recent election campaign video, Governor Kay Ivey joked that if President Joe Biden continued to allow illegal immigrants into Alabama “we all gonna have to learn Spanish” before saying “no way Jose.”

But the Alabama GOP’s anti-immigrant agenda was established long before Gov. Ivey came to power, and before Donald Trump launched his now infamous attack on Mexican migrants, calling them criminals, drug dealers and rapists.

In 2011, state legislators passed HB56, one of the most aggressive anti-immigrant laws in the country at the time.

It allowed law enforcement greater scope to question someone they reasonably suspected may be an undocumented immigrant. It also prevented undocumented immigrants from receiving public benefits, attending publicly funded colleges or universities, from renting property, and punished employers for hiring undocumented immigrants.

“After it passed the lives of non-white immigrants changed permanently in Alabama,” said Juan Torres, founder of Belong, a small Mobile-based grassroots organization that helps all types of immigrants living in Alabama. “People began leaving the state immediately. They were scared about what was coming and what would happen to themselves and their children. And that fear hasn’t gone away.”

State education officials noted a sharp drop in the number of Hispanic children attending schools and some farms experienced a huge turnover in employees.

HB56 was later gutted in a series of legal challenges at the state and federal level, with one state judge saying the law was “laced with derogatory comments about Hispanics.”

While many of HB56′s provisions were struck from the law, it continues to have a lasting effect for immigrants of color.

“Many of us face racial profiling every day and are disenfranchised by the words and action that have come since then,” added Torres. “And there’s no reason why this will change in the future.”

Who is working on the issue?

The Southern Poverty Law Center has long advocated for immigrants and helped block many of the worst provisions in HB56.

The Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice has led the way in building grassroots groups, helping give immigrants a voice and fighting against the xenophobic and anti-immigrant narratives used by elected officials.

The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama offers a range of programs that assist immigrants and communities navigate the complexities of the immigration system, as well as helping with economic development, education, and family.

But not all conservatives in Alabama are vehemently anti-immigrant. Alan Cross, a conservative Baptist minister from Montgomery, has long preached to his congregation that they people should be led by faith and not fear. He believes that Alabama’s evangelicals are slowly changing their opinions on immigration.

“Time and again during my work as a pastor, I have encountered people with strong anti-immigrant policy positions, who nevertheless open their homes, churches, wallets and arms to immigrants in their communities,” he wrote in a 2019 opinion piece for the New York Times. “Alabama can be a difficult place to understand, but the role of faith is clear. On policy, people may take their cues from anywhere — their party, their president, Fox News. But in their daily lives, their religious beliefs are their guide.”

What are the solutions?

Solutions to the country’s immigration conundrum are plentiful, but not always feasible in a divided Congress. Current laws don’t allow an easy pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants or for those enrolled in the Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals program, also known as Dreamers. President Trump also made life difficult for those legally trying to come or stay in the United States. While President Biden has restored many of the pathways to legal immigration, practical solutions to the issues faced by the country’s 10-12 million undocumented immigrants have been harder to implement.

One popular solution is an amnesty that offers a pathway to citizenship. Advocates see it as one of the most efficient ways to help, but it has not yet gained traction in Washington D.C.

At the state level, solutions are harder to come by because Republicans currently have a firm grip on the levers of power in Montgomery.

“The best solutions in Alabama are mostly how to support one another,” said Torres. “There isn’t much political popularity in making life easier for immigrants of color, so the best way to help is by being understanding and supportive of what immigrants face everyday here.”

How can I get involved?

Write to members of Alabama’s legislature or members in the U.S. Congress, although in the current political climate around immigration, don’t be discouraged if you don’t get a response right away.

Supporting groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice and the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, which provide regular updates to their members, could be a good way to keep up with developments and ensure you’re making a difference to the lives of immigrants in the state.

What are Alabama’s U.S. Senate candidates saying about immigration?

If historical trends continue, the seat now held by Sen. Richard Shelby’s seat has a strong likelihood of remaining in the hands of the GOP.

Leading the GOP pack is Katie Britt, 40. While generally in step with the Republican party’s immigration agenda, Britt has taken a pro-business approach, calling for an overhaul of the immigration system in a way that would put American and Alabamian workers first.” Alabamians are disproportionately hurt by the immigration system right now,” she said in an interview with Brietbart. “First, continual driving down of wages. Second, the coastal elites are able to fill their workforce needs [with immigrants] and we lose the opportunity to allow our workers to compete for those jobs.”

Challenging Britt is U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks. He’s well known for being outspoken on immigration, calling for the Southern border wall to be reinforced and completed inline with President Donald Trump’s campaign promise.

Former Army pilot Mike Durant, who was the frontrunner at one point, has called for the completion of the U.S.-Mexico border wall and said that illegal immigration is a threat to public safety, but he also recently favored issuing more green cards, which he said will fill vacant jobs and left the increasing wage burden on businesses.

Immigration isn’t exactly a main concern for Democrats in Alabama. In 2022, the party will focus its resources on ending the sales tax on groceries, expanding Medicaid, redressing the state’s prison crisis and civil rights. In a recent questionnaire on the election website Votesmart, Will Boyd, the leading Democratic contender for Sen. Shelby’s U.S. Senate seat, said he didn’t think undocumented immigrants should have to leave the country before acquiring U.S. citizenship. He also said he believed in a pathway to citizenship.

The Reckon Report.
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