Alabama Immigration Law and a modern-day Civil Rights Movement

Najah Farley 

When Arizona passed SB 1070, a number of commentators and blogs compared the immigration laws to vagrancy laws, overly vague laws promulgated after reconstruction to criminalize unemployment. Law enforcement officials had the power to arrest and detain persons who could not show proof of employment. And if those persons were unable to pay the fine, they could be hired out or forced to do labor in prison. These post-reconstruction laws were targeted at newly freed slaves and led to another type of involuntary servitude.

Bob Cesca, compared SB 1070 to vagrancy laws last year in the Huffington Post. He pointed out in that SB 1070 allowed police officers and other officials to inquire about a person’s citizenship status, simply based on appearance and clearly targeting those appearing to be from Mexico or Latin America. Further, he pointed out that being without the requisite information, could lead to detention with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Unfortunately, Alabama’s immigration law, HB 56, with its sweeping provisions, comes even closer in comparison to the vagrancy laws of old. Its provisions, which allow local law enforcement the far-reaching ability to inquire about immigration status and which deny those without proof of citizenship the right to work, travel or enter into contracts, has apparently caused a mass exodus. Also, as I discussed in my first post on Alabama’s HB 56, the law has also had a substantial effect on education. The tracking provisions of the law have effectively closed the public schools to one class of students.

In the NYTimes editorial on Sunday, the editors spoke to this comparison, calling for a new civil rights movement to address the continuing march towards more oppressive state immigration laws. In part, the editorial stated that even though many of HB 56′s provisions are still blocked due to federal litigation, there has already been a substantial effect on Alabama’s Latino population. The editorial noted, “[t]he 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’s Governor Robert Bentley pushed back on this comparison, stating, “[t]o equate this to the Civil Rights movement is an insult to the Civil Rights movement. It’s an insult to the men and women who had their homes bombed, the children who were killed in Birmingham up at the 16th Street Baptist Church… so it’s an insult to them.”

Governor Bentley may be correct in identifying the distinctions between the civil rights movement and the movement against SB 1070, HB 56 and similar laws; however, the issues highlighted in the editorial and in the laws themselves still stand. These laws still contain provisions that deny the rights of a certain class of persons to participate in lawful activities and criminalize them for participating in those activities. HB 56 also requires educators to track the participation of a certain class of persons in the public schools system. Is there any doubt that the voluntary withdrawal of students is the likely outcome, even without express removal? And doesn’t the exodus of Alabama’s Latino residents mirror other migrations in U.S. history, where residents were forced to leave due to oppressive laws or intolerable conditions? And although I am happy that Governor Bentley recognized Alabama’s violent repression of the civil rights movement, his remarks insinuate that the lack of state-sponsored violence somehow removes the Alabama’s HB 56 from any comparison. Is this a race to the bottom, where Alabama citizens or law enforcement should be congratulated for not physically terrorizing non-citizen residents? While comparisons to the civil rights movement are often over-done, if the outcome of invoking the history of the civil rights movement is greater attention to the far-reaching implications of these laws, the historical context and the impact on immigrant families, then (hopefully) this comparison will not be in vain.


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