We've just reached the end of this year’s National Hispanic Heritage Month, a time when Americans recognize the contributions of Hispanics and Latina/os in the United States and celebrate their heritage and culture. Here in Alabama, however, I cannot help but feel a shadow over this national celebration as September 29th began the second year of Alabama’s infamous anti-immigration law HB 56. In addition to harming our state’s economy, this law has divided our communities, split families, and turned our police, doctors, and teachers into immigration agents. Moreover, the sentiment behind it is reminiscent of Alabama’s dark history of intolerance. So in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, I would like to make this appeal to the people of Alabama and all over the United States: instead of supporting our lawmakers’ efforts to make life so difficult in our states that it drives immigrants away, let us find ways to welcome the rich culture and many contributions of Hispanics into our communities and live as a unified, inclusive country.
Over the past 13 years as Executive Director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (¡HICA!), I have seen what a welcoming state Alabama can be. Our organization has received support from corporations and local businesses, governmental and civic organizations, social service agencies, and everyday Alabamians wanting to help newcomers integrate into the community. Even in the wake of HB 56, I have seen that many people in this state, from trailer park owners to pastors to small business owners, are standing up for the civil rights and dignity of their neighbors. Over the past year thousands of Alabamians of all races and backgrounds have come together as a part of the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice at vigils, rallies, and other community events to call for the repeal of HB 56. Together with an emboldened immigrant community comprising more than 20 grassroots groups statewide, these allies are voicing their opposition to separated families, unjust incarceration, racial profiling, and the denial of education.
One fact that many may not realize is that Hispanic immigrants want to be part of our society, and are integrating in many ways. Many immigrant Alabamians have been here for many years, and have U.S.-born spouses, children, and friends. They even cheer for the same football teams as native Alabamians, and share the love we all have for our state. Every year, ¡HICA! facilitates the social, civic and economic integration of thousands of Hispanic Alabamians. We view integration as a two-way process by which newcomers and the existing society work together to build secure, vibrant, and inclusive communities. We help individuals and families file taxes, learn English, become citizens, and register to vote.
Although we have had much success in helping Hispanics integrate in Alabama, ¡HICA!’s hopeful vision was darkened significantly when Governor Robert Bentley signed HB 56 into law in 2011. Suddenly, Alabama became a hostile and unwelcoming place for all newcomers, and citizens were encouraged by the law to treat people differently based on their appearance and the way they spoke. The negative economic and human effects of the law began immediately: many Hispanic families left or went into hiding, and were too afraid to contact any authority or government agency, including police and hospitals. Hispanics were even targets of crime due to their perceived inability to report to the police. To date, the abuse hotline set up after the law’s passing has received over 6,000 calls relating to HB 56’s harmful effects on Alabamians. We continue to hear stories of Latinos, documented as well as undocumented, whose civil rights have been violated as a result of this legislation. In the face of this intolerance, we feel that upholding civil rights for all people present in our country regardless of where they came from, how they look and speak, or their current immigration status is a vital component of American values and the very fabric of our nation.
With conflict and distrust threatening to divide not only Alabamians but all Americans, one undeniable fact rises to the surface of this debate: Immigrant families, regardless of how or when they arrived here, are living, working and contributing in our country. These families call the United States home, and the reality is that using legislation to drive them away is not working and is having economic and social effects that are harmful to everyone in our communities. If we genuinely want our states to succeed and thrive, we must first make peace with the people living among us. We must also resolve to concentrate on the human impact of immigration legislation, and work together to renovate the broken federal immigration system and create a common sense process that allows a fair path to citizenship for hard-working immigrant families. So in recognition of National Hispanic Heritage Month, let us celebrate the contributions of Hispanics in Alabama and the rest of the United States and embrace the many benefits of immigrant integration so that we can achieve a Sweet Home Alabama and America para todos (for everyone).
Isabel Rubio is the Executive Director of ¡HICA! in Birmingham, Alabama.