On the Rise in Alabama
Alabama’s ruling class has dug in against the storm it caused with the nation’s most oppressive immigration law. Some of the law’s provisions have been blocked in federal court; others won’t take effect until next year. But many Alabamans aren’t waiting for things to get worse or for the uncertain possibility of judicial relief or legislative retreat. They are moving to protect themselves, and summoning the tactics of a civil rights struggle now half a century old.
The law was written to deny immigrants without papers the ability to work or travel, to own or rent a home, to enter contracts of any kind. Fear is causing an exodus as Latinos abandon homes and jobs and crops in the fields. Utilities are preparing to shut off water, power and heat to customers who cannot show the right papers.
Alabama is far from alone in passing a law whose express aim is misery and panic. States are expanding their power to hasten racial exclusion and family disintegration, to make a particular ethnic group of poor people disappear. The new laws come cloaked in talk of law and order; the bigotry beneath them is never acknowledged.
But if there is any place where bigotry does not go unrecognized, it is Alabama.
“It is a fear of folks who are not like us,” said Judge U. W. Clemon, a former state senator and Alabama’s first black federal judge, now retired. “Although the Hispanic population of the state is less than 5 percent, the leaders of the state were hell-bent on removing as much of that 4 percent as possible. And I think they’ve been fairly successful in scaring them out of the state of Alabama.”
There are, of course, significant distinctions between the civil rights movement and the fight for immigrant rights. African-Americans have endured 400 years of oppression, and toppled laws created to deny their equality and to brutalize them. Unauthorized immigrants are a group who arrived by choice, mostly. They are living outside the law, and want in.
Yet to those, like Judge Clemon, a civil rights foot soldier who fought Bull Connor and George Wallace, the common thread between then and now — the threat of racial profiling and the abuse of a cheap, exploited work force — is obvious, as is the racism driving the law.
A sponsor of the legislation, State Senator Scott Beason, chairman of the Rules Committee, was secretly taped by the F.B.I. talking about black residents of Greene County. “They’re aborigines,” he said. He is the lawmaker who urged fellow Republicans to “empty the clip” to stop illegal immigrants.
And, just as in the early days of the civil rights struggle, the oppressed and their advocates are scrambling to respond. Early this month, organizers from Alabama and around the country convened a training session for immigrant leaders in rural Albertville, where chicken plants rely heavily on Latino labor. They went from trailer home to trailer home, signing up volunteers to build immigrant networks that will help people protect one another while fighting for repeal of the law and integrating themselves into the life of their state.
This fledgling movement has been embraced by the N.A.A.C.P., whose leaders in Birmingham met recently with immigrant advocates to stress the need for blacks and Latinos to unite against the law. “Jim Crow is dead,” the Rev. Anthony Alann Johnson told the group, “but his cousins are still alive.”