Anti-Latino/a laws ignite the South

In its original format, Alabama’s Beason-Hammon Act, HB 56, granted school resource officers the right to badger fifth graders on the basis of their immigration status. The Alabama Legislature, which passed HB 56 in June 2011, made Alabama the only state in the country requiring public school administrators to verify immigration data for new K-12 students.

However, in August of this year, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the student provision of HB 56, declaring it unconstitutional and a legal breach of Plyer vs. Doe, which mandates that states provide an education to all children regardless of their immigration status. The court also struck down Georgia’s HB 87, a state proposal to criminalize “the transporting and harboring of illegal immigrants.” The statute, a proposal with no parallel within U.S. federal law, had “anti-Latino/a” written all over it.

When initially proposed, HB 56 and HB 87 were sold as valuable pieces of legislation that would boost local economies by cracking down on the presence of undocumented immigrants entering the U.S. Conservatives billed such bigotry as a quick fix to unemployment and poorly performing schools.

Instead, such rogue policies were a complete setback to civil rights and due process. In Alabama, children of all ages were deterred from attending school and pursuing their education. Many withdrew out of fear that their families could be deported if questioned about their immigration status. According to the U.S. Justice Department, more than 13 percent of Latino/a children withdrew in the one year that HB 56 operated, before federal intervention. Instead of teaching geometry, classroom instructors were forced to fish for birth certificates.

As for those local economies and decreasing unemployment rates, Alabama’s number-one industry, agriculture, was decimated. We’re talking about an agricultural sector accustomed to generating more than $5.5 billion per year. Industries dependent upon migrant labor, like Alabama’s poultry operations, were devastated. Small farming operations were brought to a halt, as valuable workers were scared indoors. Others simply migrated for the purpose of mere safety. Such complications have also been used as justification for not paying temporary workers — hired and then fired a month later, and with no pay to show for it. Many Latinos/as, documented and undocumented, have refused to report crimes, as any potential scrutiny by local law enforcement could initiate an Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigation.

Though portions of these bills were repealed, human rights supporters have continued to sound the alarm, for this branding of social control affects all poor and oppressed people by creating fear and frustration through alienation.

Recently, the state of Alabama has challenged the ruling of the 11th Circuit’s three-judge panel and has asked for a new hearing. Though particular provisions were found to be outright unconstitutional, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, state officials are arguing that federal courts overstepped state jurisdiction. Unfortunately, it seems that, like Arizona, Alabama is positioning itself to take its immigration law all the way to the Supreme Court.

For those of us who are U.S. history buffs, one can’t help but draw a direct correlation to Gov. George Wallace’s stand against federal authorities in the 1960s. His hard-line stance for segregation against the U.S. Supreme Court aroused racists nationwide.

In addition to federal judges, HB 56 has also caught the attention of President Barack Obama. Even he has gone on record stating that “it’s a bad law.” But then again, the Obama administration deported 396,000 immigrants last year.

While members of Congress, federal judges and state legislators continue to debate, human rights defenders welcome the progress, limited though it may be, that has been made. We know, however, that those of us who despise such racist bigotry must continue to raise our voices. Deleting a few provisions isn’t going to be enough here, not while racial profiling still runs rampant.

When traffic stops and roadblocks become immigrant obstacle courses, ethics become a serious matter of legal concern. If justice fails to prevail in this case, such structural hate could begin to blanket the entire southern Black Belt, setting new precedents for states like South Carolina, Georgia and Arkansas.

In response to this yearlong battle, immigrant rights activists have stayed the course. Protesters have deployed an array of tactics, such as rallies and community forums, teach-ins and street blockades. DREAM activists and immigrant youth have conducted walkouts. Workers and adult cooperatives have organized major strikes. Latino/a customers have chosen to boycott local businesses, while tens of thousands have convened in solidarity. Organizations such as the Steel Workers union, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Immigrant Justice League have joined forces. The NAACP and the Southern Poverty Law Center are also on board. The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., — the same church bombed by racists in 1963 — has served as a rest haven and planning headquarters.

The bottom line is that HB 56 is a law that continues to ostracize and divide, conjuring fear and heightening the level of innocent victims and false arrests — perpetuating a complete violation of civil liberties. These anti-Latino/a acts aren’t merely a matter of disenfranchisement. Latino/a immigrants are being denied the right to even exist in some states, to barely breathe without some “officer of the law” riding their backs with an iron boot.

True, the recent rulings by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals represent some progress, but there should be no compromise with laws that encourage hate. For those of us who are abreast of such racist regulations, let us spread the word and continue to organize. For those of you who are learning of such injustice for the first time, join the movement’s noble cause. We the People say, “Freedom for all!” and “Down with HB 56!”

Lamont Lilly is a contributing editor with the Triangle Free Press, columnist for the African American Voice and local organizer with Workers World Party. He resides in Durham, N.C.