The elevator doesn’t go all the way to the eighth floor of the Alabama State House. Tony Blanco took it to the seventh, and then hustled up a flight of stairs and down a hallway into the gallery overlooking the Alabama Senate.
Slipping into a seat on the back row, the Mexican teenager from outside Auburn, Ala. has arrived just in time to hear Alabama Sen. Scott Beason (R-Gardendale) slap some lipstick on his piece of legislation, H.B. 56, that has come to be considered the nation’s harshest immigration law.
“This is what I call the crayon version,” Beason told his fellow legislators. “I thought about buying boxes of crayons and bringing them for everybody.”
The senator is offering up some amendments to his legislation. While H.B. 56 was passed last fall, several provisions are being challenged in court.
“There are people out there that are clearly opposed to this legislation,” Beason said.
It’s true. Some of them are praying outside on the state house steps. Others are chanting loudly on the seventh floor.
It’s the last day of the Alabama legislative session, another chance for everyone on either side of the country’s immigration debate to make some noise.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court will offer its opinion on Arizona’s efforts, S.B. 1070, to enact its own immigration legislation. It’s a ruling other states are watching closely, many with immigration legislation of their own currently on the books, waiting in the wings or held up in the courts.
The country’s immigrant population, those with documentation and those without, is also watching closely. Civil rights and immigrant-focused organizations have argued that state laws currently being passed can only lead to the targeting and persecution of a certain ethnic group, specifically persons of Latino decent.
Outside the Alabama State House, Marlene Bornego holds her baby and talks about why she has traveled to Montgomery, Ala. The Mexican mother describes wanting a better life for her family and says she hopes H.B. 56 is eventually repealed.
“I hope,” Bornego said. “I hope to God.”
On the senate floor, Sen. Beason wraps up his comments. Easily approved, the amended bill travels on to the governor’s desk.
Seated near Blanco in the spectator gallery, Felix Martinez is having a difficult time understanding what has just happened. The undocumented Mexican doesn’t speak very much English, so Blanco leans over and explains that the senators have approved the amended bill.
“Mal,” said Martinez, shaking his head.
BUSTING THE PINATA
William Gheen has crossed the border. It’s unusual for him to migrate this far up in the story, but here he is, going bat-shit crazy right here in Quadrant One.
“We don’t usually get too fair of a shake in the indy media,” Gheen said, later explaining that he’s usually exiled to a sort of literary purgatory called Quadrant Three. “—I’m like the obligatory mention of the other side of the argument.”
Gheen is the head of Americans for Legal Immigration. He speaks with the press often, but never seems too thrilled about it.
“The indy?” he growled. “A good George Soros-funded paper?”
Quadrant Three is apparently an article’s wasteland and carries journalistic sub-textual implications. It appears to be some place the liberal media stuffs things it wants to lose.
“You’re fourth point, you’re least important point is in Quadrant Three,” Gheen explained. “So, that’s where you’ll find me in a lot of articles.”
This sort of inferiority complex-based thought process also seems to apply to Gheen’s views on immigration: they’re stealing jobs; they’re stealing elections; they’re not inviting him to their fiesta.
“A lot of these illegal immigrants don’t like Americans,” Gheen said.
For the past few years, Gheen has positioned Americans for Legal Immigration (ALI-PAC) at the forefront of the immigration debate. The political action network is currently laying the groundwork necessary to spread Arizona-styled legislation nationwide.
“Our ambition is to pass versions of S.B. 1070 in about half the states,” Gheen said. “Especially in the South and the Midwest.”
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed S.B. 1070—or, The Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act—into law in April of 2010. The more controversial measures of the law make it a crime for immigrants to be without their documentation and also obligates police officers to determine a person’s immigration status if there is reasonable suspicion that the person may be in the country illegally. The law also allows citizens to sue law enforcement agencies in order to compel them to enforce the state’s new immigration legislation.
Arizona’s law sparked nationwide protests. While proponents contend that state-level legislation is needed to compensate for poor federal enforcement of existing immigration laws, critics have charged that such laws are bad for the economy and society, and will inevitably lead into some dark waters.
“We have a lot of problems with these laws,” said Linton Joaquin, general counsel for the National Immigration Law Center. “They really open the gates for racial profiling.”
Supporters of state-legislation argue that it’s not about race, but rather immigration status. Sen. Beason, sponsor of Alabama’s bill, assures that his law will not lead to racial profiling.
“We’re very, very careful in our law to make sure that’s not tolerated,” the senator said, a day before bringing his amended bill before the senate.
To illustrate his point, Beason recalled how a Mercedes-Benz executive was pulled over and held by police shortly after the law was enacted. Detlev Hagar—possessing only his German identification card—was detained in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
“I don’t think anybody can say he was profiled,” Beason said.
Beason’s H.B. 56—even the amended version—is considered, depending on who you ask, the best or the worst piece of immigration legislation in the country.
“We do a few other things than Arizona does,” the senator said.
In addition to performing on-the-spot status verification, Alabama’s law also requires schools to gather citizenship status information from students; makes it illegal to rent property to, hire, harbor or transport undocumented immigrants; requires employers to use the US E-Verify program; and prohibits undocumented people from applying for work.
Two years after the passage of S.B. 1070, Alabama is the new Arizona. When ALI-PAC meets with state legislators in an effort to get more immigration laws on the books, they’ll bring blueprints drawn up in the Heart of Dixie.
“You’ve got to understand, S.B. 1070 has changed since it was enacted,” said Gheen. “The copies we’re circulating right now are much more similar to Alabama’s law.”
Gheen’s goal of getting immigration legislation passed in half the country within the year may not seem so far-fetched, considering many states already have such legislation in place or pending. Half a dozen states, including Georgia and South Carolina, have adopted Arizona-esque legislation.
Pro-legislation groups are already on the ground in states around the country. Activists and legislators work together to craft each state’s legislation, with one eye on the drawing board and the other on Arizona’s case before the Supreme Court.
“We’re priming the pump,” Gheen said, describing how each state’s law will need to be tweaked to suit its specific needs and adapt to the evolving legal landscape. “—To make sure it becomes more immune to lawsuits from immigration-supporting groups, and individuals like Obama and the Mexican government.”
That’s also what Sen. Beason is attempting with his amended H.B. 56., to make it more palatable to society and less likely to be defeated in court. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, however, still felt a little squeamish, ordering lawmakers into a special session to make changes to the bill a day after the senate amended it. A day after that—when lawmakers balked at the governor’s request—Bentley went ahead a signed the bill.
“If we have to write it in crayon we will,” Beason said a day before proposing the amendments. “People are just so sensitive about this.”
Shouting up to the top-floor senate chamber, Victor Spezzini’s voice drifts into the blue Montgomery, Ala. sky. He leads the group assembled outside the state house in a series of chants.
“What is the reason? Scott Beason!” Spenzzini shouted.
Today’s theater is pure formality. Everyone knows what’s going down upstairs. Still, it’s a chance to wear matching t-shirts and pound your chest.
“If you’re wondering what the message is, it’s a very simple message we learned in Sunday School!” Spenzzini roared over the PA system. “If God loves us, why don’t you?”
No matter how many slogans bounce around the state house steps, at day’s end Alabama will still reign supreme as the state with the nation’s toughest stance on immigration. And that’s gonna make for a sketchy ride home.
Standing on the state house lawn under the shade of a tree, Jose Tomas has been looking over his shoulder since Alabama’s law was enacted last year. He flinches, pausing in conversation every time a Capitol police officer walks too close.
The undocumented Mexican lost his job immediately following the law’s passage. Now Tomas spends a considerable amount of time worrying about traveling from Point A to Point B without getting deported.
“We check the lights, the turn signals, the brake light,” Tomas explained. “That’s normal. We do that everyday.”
Tomas’ relatives worry about him and his family. They wish he would get out of Alabama.
“They say, ‘why won’t you go to another state?’” he relayed. “I say, ‘in other states they’ll probably pass laws, too.’”
This is exactly the intent of state-level immigration laws. It’s called “attrition through enforcement.” With the passage of such legislation, proponents are hoping to make day-to-day life so difficult and dangerous that illegal immigrants voluntarily leave.
“It pushes these groups of people into a subclass,” said Benjamin Stevenson, an attorney with American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
And while only a handful of states are pushing the immigration envelope, the prevailing mood has swept the country. Immigrants across America are feeling the impact.
“It affects the psyche,” said Jeannie Economos, of the Farmworker Association of Florida. “There’s a kind of fear and intimidation in Florida that keeps people in their homes, that keeps them from going to the doctor or the grocery store … I tell you, it’s really bad right now.”
In Florida, which has not yet enacted its own immigration legislation, migrant workers are feeling the sting of the national climate. In addition to the souring national mood, Florida immigrants must also account for legislation in neighboring states Alabama and Georgia.
“Because of the bad laws in Alabama and Georgia, a lot of farm workers in Florida are afraid to travel, to migrate north,” Economos said, explaining that workers are also becoming stranded in northern states and are scared to travel traditional migration routes back to Florida for the state’s long growing season. “They’re afraid to come here. Afraid of being targeted driving through Alabama and Georgia.”
As immigrants across the U.S. eye the legal challenges playing out in key battleground states, the community has become increasingly more on edge. The patchwork woven over decades of immigration could be unraveling.
“A lot of families are mixed families, one parent may be documented, the other may not; the parents may be undocumented, while the children are citizens,” Economos said. “We have children that come home from school everyday afraid their parents might have been deported.”
With a number states waiting on the legal cues from Arizona and Alabama, immigrants in Florida may soon have to worry about more than a wounded psyche. They could soon see state legislators enact their very own immigration legislation to fear.
“I think if Alabama and Arizona are successful, a number of states will,” Sen. Beason said.
Florida lawmakers already made two failed attempts, during the 2010 and 2011 legislative sessions, at immigration legislation.
“We were worried about that,” said Natalia Jaramillo, of the Florida Immigrant Coalition.
Immigrant organizations, joined by the business and agricultural communities, flooded into Tallahassee, Fla. Ultimately, lawmakers flinched and the bills died in committee each time.
“It was on of the few Southeast states that was able to push back these laws,” Jaramillo recalled.
But there’s always next year. Florida officials are certainly watching the current Supreme Court case as they map out their next move.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has joined 15 other states in signing onto a friend-of-the-court, or amicus, brief. She is throwing her state’s weight behind Arizona.
“Governor Jan Brewer shouldn’t have to be dealing with that in Arizona,” Bondi told reporters in April.
In South Florida, We Count! works to improve overall conditions for immigrants in the state. Executive Director Jonathan Fried constantly keeps one weary eye focused on Tallahassee, waiting for the state’s next attempt at immigration legislation.
“It would create a human-rights crisis greater than the one that already exists,” Fried said. “We don’t want to drive people more underground.”
BOGEYMAN IN THE BARRIO
Last year, political-comedian Stephen Colbert testified before the U.S. Congress about the nation’s current immigration landscape. As usual, his comedy rode the razor’s edge toward tragedy.
“This is America, I don’t want a tomato picked by a Mexican. I want it picked by an American, then sliced by a Guatemalan and served by a Venezuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian,” Colbert told the legislators. “Because my great-grandfather did not travel across 4,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean to see this country overrun by immigrants. He did it because he killed a man back in Ireland. That’s the rumor; I don’t know if that’s true.”
From the country’s beginning, America has been built on a foundation of immigrants. With the exception of Native Americans, everyone is a stranger in this strange land.
People have traditionally arrived in this country with eager eyes and a hopeful heart. Today is no different.
“We come here for a better life,” says Lily Ambrasio, standing out front of the Alabama State House. “The same as everybody else.”
But the national climate has become increasingly tense for immigrants, specifically Latinos, in recent years. In 2012, immigration legislation proponents like Gheen have little trouble loading up their bandwagon.
In his paranoia-soaked worldview, Gheen envisions an America swamped with massive numbers of illegal immigrants. After stealing all the jobs and sucking up all the social services, the immigrants will surely change the official language to Spanish, hang piñatas from lampposts and force everyone to subsist on varying arrangements of tortillas, rice and beans. The ALI-PAC head is hard at work to ensure that this “immune system destroying voter block” never takes over the country.
“Let’s say you have a staph infection—this is not to dehumanize illegal immigrants, they are people,” Gheen explained. “What would happen if you decided to let the staph infection stay? You’d die.”
Ironically, new data indicates that immigration rates are actually slowing. This is attributed to the country’s worsening economy and shrinking number of jobs.
But the country’s problems are deep and intricate. It’s much easier to find a bogeyman in the barrio.
“Even though a lot of people know it’s because of banks and the mortgage crisis and the housing bubble, a lot of people are using immigrants as scapegoats,” said Economos. “I think a couple of things come into play: just the fear of the unknown, the fear of the stranger.”
Legislation supporters maintain that states are simply filling a void. Picking up slack the federal government has neglected.
“The problem is, our presidents—specifically Bush, and now Obama—have not met their constitutional duties of the oath of office,” says Gheen.
But voices on the other side of the debate feel the argument’s very premise is misguided. They focus less on legalities and more on people.
“The legal system needs to catch up to where society already is,” said Fried, arguing for a more open immigration policy. “I don’t think it’s something we should fear. It’s a beautiful thing.”
DEJA VU VOTEX
Montgomery, Ala. is a natural vortex for civil rights drama. It was here, in 1965, that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. ended the legendary Selma-to-Montgomery march on the capitol’s steps. That was back when state lawmakers met in the capitol building.
These days, legislators meet in the Alabama State House. It’s the old Highway Department Building, with segregationist Gov. George Wallace’s name engraved on the cornerstone.
Up in the eighth-floor senate gallery, Felix Martinez talks about life since the enactment of H.B. 56. His Spanish slows to a reflective pace. It’s getting tough for a Mexican in Alabama.
“He says, ‘It’s been bad here,’” Blanco translated. “‘And the police have been very strict and detaining people.’”
Martinez has a daughter and a grandson. He worries about them constantly. Back home, his family worries about him.
“‘My family in Mexico,’” Blanco said, pausing for Martinez to continue. “‘Is always asking me when I’m coming back because they see things on television and they hear bad things, but I have to stay here and repeal this law.’”
On the staircase back down to the seventh-floor, an elderly Latino woman walks slowly with her family. Her face wrinkled, her eyes focused on the next step.
Near the entrance to the senate floor, a group of protestors has begun to sing songs—“Amazing Grace,” “We Shall Overcome”— from the civil rights-era songbook. A few people lay arms linked on the floor in a symbolic blockage of the senate chambers. A few more have already been hauled away in handcuffs.
“Report me! Report me!” a young Latino yelled at scrambling staffers. “I’m undocumented and I’m not afraid of you!”
One of the people on the floor is wearing a clergy collar. Later in the elevator, Pastor Tommy Morgan will laugh nervously and explain how scared he was. But, he would say, he had to.
“Because injustice is injustice,” Morgan explained, lying near the senate floor entrance. “We have to fight it. This is what Jesus taught us.”
A black state house staffer stands over Morgan. He and his cohorts seem to be trying to manage the situation without any more arrests. It’s getting awkward in the vortex.
“You understand,” a young Latino man said to the staffer, almost quietly.
“Have a nice day,” the black man replied.