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Tuesday, Jun 14, 2011, 11:46 am

Alabama Has Gone Further Than Arizona’s S.B. 1070. Why So Little Protest?

By Cole Stangler

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Alto Arizona May 29, 2010

Following in the footsteps of Arizona last summer and Indiana, Utah and Georgia this year, Alabama is next in the line of states to pass harsh anti-immigrant legislation. Signed into law by Republican Governor Robert Bentley on June 9, H.B. 56 actually goes a few steps further than any previous laws in its attempts to criminalize undocumented immigrants and crack down on those who knowingly aid them.

Hailed by bill supporter Representative Micky Hammon as an “Arizona bill with an Alabama twist,” H.B. 56 includes sweeping language that prohibits the provision of transport or housing to an undocumented immigrant, requires law enforcement officers to “attempt to determine the immigration status of a person who they suspect is an unauthorized alien of this country,” bans undocumented immigrants from attending state colleges and requires public schools to verify the immigration status of students and their parents. The bill also makes it illegal to hire an undocumented immigrant.

Marielena Hincapié of the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) gave a pretty accurate description of the bill in a statement released last Thursday: “Today, Alabama effectively turned state workers, police officers, and school teachers into de facto immigration agents ... Alabama’s legislators have deemed an entire class of people not worthy of the most fundamental rights.”

If progressives and liberals can agree about the law's discriminatory nature—and if even the bill's supporters have proudly declared it to be harsher than Arizona's S.B. 1070—then where is all the outrage? Where's the opposition in Alabama? Where's the national solidarity?

Apart from a small mobilization of about 200 people at the Montgomery State House when the bill was introduced in March, in-state opposition has been mostly subdued. This is probably due, in large part, to the fact that Alabama's Latino population pales in comparison to Arizona's, even if the 2010 Census revealed it had risen by 145 percent over the last ten years.

And as one writer has noted, Alabama’s conservative political tradition and lack of liberal organizations are probably also to blame for the lack of in-state outcry. Indeed, only Idaho, Wyoming, Utah and Oklahoma went more handily to McCain in the 2008 elections than the state unofficially known as the "Heart of the Dixie." Even so, these factors alone don’t explain the lack of solidarity at the national level.

Undocumented immigrants in Alabama don’t have anything like the vibrant and now well-known Alto Arizona campaign that began in opposition to Arizona's S.B. 1070, passed in April 2010. There are no colorful posters or CDs for sale to benefit their cause, no calls yet to boycott the state and no movement to relocate a nationally televised sporting event. Like in Georgia, Indiana, and Utah, undocumented immigrants have only the legal system to protect their rights. And even if the courts haven't hesitated to strike down some of these bills' more extreme elements, this underscores a potentially larger problem for undocumented immigrants and their allies as more and more state legislatures tackle issues related to immigration at an unprecedented rate.

The lack of grassroots opposition and national solidarity runs the risk of suggesting that the immigrant-rights movement lacks energy or is weak, both of which aren’t necessarily true. Perhaps even worse, it suggests that the national discourse has shifted to a point where legislation like H.B. 56 is now regarded as the norm. The quiet response signals to the public that anti-immigrant bills might be controversial or upsetting, but all in all, not worth getting too hung up about.

So why not supplant the legal battle that's already in process, take a page from the Arizona playbook and start a boycott of Alabama? In a state famed for its rich and painful tradition of civil rights struggle—and one that proudly advertises that struggle today to its tourists—such a move could make for a powerful and symbolic statement. Even if its economic effects were minimal, a boycott could bring some much-needed attention to the plight of undocumented immigrants across the country as state governments mull over proposals similar to H.B. 56. Most importantly, it could put the immigrant-rights movement back on the offensive.

The NILC, ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center have already teamed up to challenge the new law in court—and if past legal efforts to challenge similar anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona, Utah, and Indiana are any indication, there is a strong possibility that the harshest parts of the law could be overturned before they take effect on September 1.

Upsettingly, though, the Department of Justice has yet to comment on whether it will challenge H.B. 56, as it did S.B. 1070. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the attorney who helped write S.B. 1070 and its copycat bills, offered his own cynical explanation: "The Feds went after Arizona, but they did it in an election year ... I think, unfortunately, the Justice Department is letting political calculations figure in here ... I'd be surprised if the Department of Justice weighs in on this one."

Let's hope he's wrong.

Cole Stangler writes about labor and the environment. His reporting has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Republic and International Business Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at] Follow him @colestangler.

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