US & Canada

Alabama Hispanics concerned over immigration law

Hispanic school children
Image caption There have been high absentee rates of Latino students in Alabama schools in recent weeks

A new immigration law has sparked concern among the Hispanic community in Alabama and drawn comment from the US federal government.

Attorney General Eric Holder became the latest administration figure to speak out against the law, which came into force in September.

Speaking at a service honouring the late civil rights leader Rev Fred Shuttlesworth, Mr Holder said too many people in Alabama were "willing to turn their backs on our immigrant past".

Under the law, police can demand proof of residency from any person of "reasonable doubt" and Alabama schools are required to collect information about the immigration status of their students.

"It is such a broad law that it allows [the] monitoring of any form of contact between immigrants and authorities, or between immigrants and other citizens," said University of Alabama law professor Paul Horowitz.

The HB56 law is stricter than others adopted in states such as Arizona and Georgia.

Experts says that since it was enacted on 30 September, the effects of the law have been felt in the Latino community in faster and more obvious ways than in Arizona, where another law targeting illegal immigrants came into force in 2010.

'Climate of fear'

With the HB56 law, Alabama follows the path of other southern states, where a crackdown on illegal immigration has intensified in recent years.

The difference is that while other areas have statistically significant Hispanic communities (30% in Arizona, for example), Alabama Latinos represent only 3% of the total population.

Alabama did, however, have the nation's second fastest-growing Hispanic population between 2000 and 2010. According to analysts, that may have increased the perception of undocumented migrants as a "threat" amongst some conservative groups.

Thus, many have welcomed the enforcement of this piece of legislation.

"I have no doubt that this is the best thing for the long-term economic health of our state and no doubt that this is what a majority of the people of Alabama wants," said state Senator Scott Beason, the main sponsor of the bill.

Tea Party representatives described the HB56 law as "the best bill that we have designed" and called for similar standards to be adopted in other states.

In Alabama workplaces, churches and schools there have been noticeable changes in the daily routines of Hispanics, many of whom now feel intimidated, since the law came into force.

Elementary schools now report high absentee rates among Latino students.

Image caption Alabama became a key flashpoint in the civil rights movement

"We have seen children crying as they get off the bus, thinking their parents won't be home when they return because they will have been deported," said William Lawrence, a school principal in the city of Foley.

"Many were absent and the rumours generated a climate of fear."

Many Hispanic parents are now considering leaving the state, Mr Lawrence added. Twenty-four of the 223 Latino children enrolled at his school have already left and 36 more have announced they will leave soon.

Under the law, schools must ask new students for birth certificates and official documents that are then sent to the Alabama State Board of Education.

Although the data is not forwarded to the immigration authorities, many parents are concerned that inspections and arrests might start occurring at the school gates.

"We started a campaign to explain to parents what the implications of this law are. But the children will get the worst of it because this panic affects learning," Mr Lawrence said.

"We do not know who is documented and who isn't. We do not ask because that's none of our business."

The 2010 US census showed about 79,000 children of migrant families live in Alabama. Of those, 88% were born in the United States, according to Kids Count, a nationwide welfare foundation.

The state will now have access to their immigration details to assess how much of the education budget is spent on the schooling of undocumented immigrants, according to authorities.

"HB56 directly threatens the education, safety, and overall well-being of children in Alabama," said Wendy Cervantes of First Focus, an organisation that protects children's rights.

"This law turns school officials into government agents, and diverts limited resources away from teaching Alabama's children."

Teachers are concerned about the long-term effects of the law on classrooms, and if the exodus of Hispanic children continues, state authorities could cut the current education budget.

Missing Mass

The law has also raised concerns among religious leaders.

Pastors and priests fear being sanctioned for assisting undocumented immigrants in their communities, as well as seeing their congregations dwindle.

Leaders of various churches filed an appeal before the Court, saying the new law could interfere with the free practice of religion.

"In the 60s, it was the black churches that rejected discriminatory practices," said Scott Douglas of Greater Birmingham Ministries, a multi-racial organisation representing 20 different faith groups in the state.

"It is significant that today black churches, white churches and brown churches are coming together to overturn this unjust law that threatens our community,"

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