Fear of detention, families torn apart – Hispanics in Alabama are trapped in a unique half-life under punishing new immigrant laws
Alabama immigration law: anyone failing to carry immigraton papers
is now deemed to be committing a criminal act
Photo By Gary Tramontina
By Ed Pilkington
Isobel Gomez’s apartment on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama, has the hunkered-down quality of a wartime bunker. There are boxes of bottled water, rice, beans and tortillas stacked against the living room wall – sufficient to last her family of five several days. The curtains are drawn and the lights on, even though it is early afternoon.
For the past two weeks, this small space has been Gomez’s prison cell. She has been cooped up here, shut off from natural light and almost all contact with the outside world since 28 September, the day a judge upheld the new law that has given Alabama the distinction of having the most draconian immigration powers in America.
Gomez (the name is not her real one, at her request) used to be a gregarious person, taking her daughters to school, visiting her mother nearby, shopping every day. Now she leaves the apartment only once a week, to stock up on those boxes of essentials at the local Walmart.
The day after the new law was upheld, Gomez saw three police cars driving around her housing complex, which is almost entirely Hispanic in occupancy. Word went around that the police asked men standing on the street to go inside their homes or face arrest.
She took the mandate literally, and from that moment has barely set foot outside. She no longer drives, her car sitting unused by the kerbside. Under the new law, police have to check the immigration papers of anyone “suspicious” they stop for a routine traffic violation – a missing brake light, perhaps, or parking on the wrong spot.
“If they see me they will think I’m suspicious and then they will detain me indefinitely,” Gomez says.
Why would the police think she was suspicious? “They will see the colour of my skin.”
Gomez’s is one of thousands of Hispanic families in Alabama trapped in a sort of half-life while they wait to see what will happen in the courts to the new law, HB56. Both the US department of justice and a coalition of local groups are challenging the clampdown at the 11th circuit appeals court in Atlanta, Georgia. The court must decide whether to allow the new law to stand or to block it pending higher judgment by the US supreme court; its ruling is expected by the end of this week.
While the judges deliberate, Alabama’s uniquely tough new provisions remain in effect. In addition to the police check of “suspicious” people, anyone failing to carry immigration papers is now deemed to be committing a criminal act.
Undocumented immigrants are also forbidden from entering into a transaction with the state, which has already led some town halls to demand residents produce their papers or risk losing water supply. Schools have been instructed to check the immigration status of new pupils as young as four.
Even families legally entitled to be in the country are being caught. Cineo Gonzalez was shocked a few weeks ago when his six-year-old daughter came home from school carrying a printout. It gave details of HB56 and its implications, under the heading: “Frequent questions about the immigration law.”
Gonzalez is a US permanent resident, having come from Mexico more than 20 years ago. His daughter is an American citizen, having been born in Alabama. Both are entirely legal. Yet she was one of only two children in her class – both Hispanic in appearance – who were given the printout.
Why was she singled out, Gonzalez asked the deputy head teacher. “Because we gave the printout to children we thought were not from here,” came the reply.
Gonzalez is a taxi driver. Soon after the law came into effect, he began getting calls from Hispanic families. “People started asking me for prices. How much would it cost to go to Indiana? How much to New York? Or Atlanta, or Texas, or Ohio, or North Carolina?”
At about 2am one night, he was woken up by a woman who asked him to come and pick her and her family up immediately and drive them to North Carolina.
He went drove to their apartment where he found the two parents, three children and a small number of bags waiting for him. “Can you hurry up, we’re very scared,” the woman said. “The police followed my husband on his way back from work and that’s why we’re leaving.”
It took eight hours to get to North Carolina. The children slept the whole journey; the father sat in silence; the mother cried all the way.
“That was devastating,” Gonzalez says. “I knew things were bad, but this really showed me something was happening. Families are being destroyed.”
‘They see us as servants’
Outside the offices of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, HICA, about 30 people – including several small children – are sitting waiting for legal advice. An overflow room has been set up at the back of the building to accommodate families who arrive throughout the day.
In a consulting room, a case manager is drawing up a power of attorney letter for a couple who fear they could be rounded up and deported at any time. The legal document – one of hundreds taken out by parents in the state – sets out what should happen to their eight-year-old daughter should they both suddenly disappear.
In this case, it gives one of the couple’s friends, a US citizen, the power to make decisions for the girl on anything from medical procedures to schooling. “This is very cruel, very extreme,” the mother says, asking to remain anonymous. “We have never done harm to anyone. We’ve only worked hard. Now they’re trying to split us from our child.”
Why does she think they – the Alabama authorities – are doing this? “We ask ourselves that too. Why are they doing this? They say it’s because we are taking jobs from local people, but I don’t think it can be about that. It’s about racism.”
Her husband chimes in: “They see us as servants. As people they can keep at the bottom. Not as people who want a better future for ourselves and for our children.”
Most of the 100 or so families who are now coming to HICA for help every day are doing so to have powers of attorney drawn up for their kids. Others want advice about what to do when teachers enquire about their children’s status. Increasingly, people are coming in having been fired by their employers for lack of immigration papers.
‘We do the jobs nobody wants to do’
Efren Cruz has lived in Alabama for 23 years having come here when he was 14 from Mexico. He speaks fluent English with a rich southern drawl. Since HB56 came into effect he has been sacked by four different steel and paper mills where he has worked on and off for years. Now he’s jobless.
But he’s not taking it supinely. He laughs at the suggestion that the new law is designed to stop illegal Mexicans taking jobs away from worthy and needy local Alabamans. “We aren’t taking anybody’s jobs because, let’s face it, they don’t want to work. We do the jobs that nobody else wants to do.”
Despite the fact that he is undocumented, and thus liable to be detained under the new law, he is among a small group of protesters outside the federal court in Birmingham. His fellow demonstrators include a seven-year-old boy carrying a placard that says: “I just look illegal”, and Cruz’s niece Angela, a US citizen aged two, whose sign says: “They can’t deport us ALL”.
Cruz had hoped that many more people would have joined the protest. Over the past week they have been petitioning members of their local church to attend, and about 400 promised to come along. Only about 25 turned up. “That’s how scared people are,” Cruz says.
Other sporadic and tentative protests are cropping up across the state. A nearby Mexican restaurant, Gordos Market (which translates as “Fat people’s market”), is closed for three days. A sign on the front door explains that it is shuttered out of “Apoya por una buena causa” – support for a good cause.
Across the state this week, poultry and meat processing plants, including the giant Tyson, have been closed or put on limited production schedules because of an unofficial walkout by Hispanic workers. In the north of the state, the pungent smell of rotting tomatoes hangs in the air across huge tranches of land that has been virtually abandoned by workers who, through fear or anger, are no longer turning up to gather the harvest.
Just how long this standoff will continue, and what happens to the thousands of families caught in limbo, will depend largely on what the 11th circuit appeals court rules, and ultimately on the final say of the US supreme court.
In the meantime, though, Isobel Gomez remains trapped inside her prison cell apartment. The only thing keeping her here, she says, is her daughters, who want to stay and make a life for themselves in America as countless millions of immigrant Americans have done before them.
“Every day I ask myself the question: how much longer can I survive this? How much longer can I bear sitting at home, unable to leave the house? How much longer can I stand the humiliation of knowing that I’m seen by others as a bad person, as a criminal? If it were down to me, I’d have had enough already.”
See Related: Social Archive