Travesty of Alabama's Immigration Law

Jews Should Join Fight To Roll Back Xenophobic Measure

Sweet Home America: Alabama’s stringent anti-immigrant law has brought fear and suspicion to Americans, wherever they were born.
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Sweet Home America: Alabama’s stringent anti-immigrant law has brought fear and suspicion to Americans, wherever they were born.

By Gideon Aronoff and Jane Ramsey

Published November 27, 2011, issue of December 02, 2011.
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If Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel were alive today, they would surely be standing arm in arm, condemning Alabama’s new anti-immigrant law.

Under Alabama’s new law, House Bill 56, local law enforcement officers are required to obtain proof of legal status from anyone whom they stop and “suspect” is in the country illegally. In other words, an undocumented immigrant can now be arrested and held without bond if he or she cannot validate citizenship during a routine traffic stop.

Additionally, Alabama’s new immigration law prohibits entering into contracts and government business transactions with undocumented immigrants, a provision that already has led to households being deprived of basic public utilities, like water supply and sewer service. Immigrant workers — documented and undocumented — are fleeing the state because they or their family members do not have proper documentation and they fear they will be jailed.

Anyone suspected of being undocumented could potentially become a target of investigation and harassment. Entire communities are living in fear.

Not surprisingly, civil rights issues have arisen in the wake of the new law: Children are being bullied, parents are withdrawing their children from schools and immigrants — both documented and undocumented — are living in fear of run-ins with local law officers. In fact, the first person arrested under Alabama’s immigration law proved to have proper documentation.

Cineo Gonzales — a legal immigrant of 10 years who lives in Birmingham — reports that shortly after HB 56 went into effect, his first-grader daughter was given a “know-your-rights” document for targets of the new law, outlining recommendations for encounters with law enforcement. Although Gonzales is a legal immigrant and his daughter was born in Alabama, school officials singled out the child because she is of Latino descent, saying that the documents were given to “all children who aren’t from here.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Birmingham, reports that more than 3,000 calls have poured in to its hotline from immigrants affected by the law. Their vulnerability is not something that America’s government takes lightly — and rightfully so. Concerned about civil rights and liberties violations, the U.S. Department of Justice has put staff on the ground to monitor implementation of the law, and DOJ has also set up a hotline to collect reports of rights violations.

Throughout our history, Jews have been considered strangers and outsiders in their communities, and we know too well the pain of living in fear. We know that racial profiling incites feelings of helplessness, frustration, anxiety and anger for innocent victims.

In addition, racial profiling is ineffective and harmful as a law enforcement tool. If there is a perception that calling the police may lead to deportation, police may find undocumented people and their family members hesitant to seek protection, report crimes committed against them or serve as witnesses. The Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence, for example, reported a decrease in calls for help. This the coalition attributes to Arizona’s immigration law, Senate Bill 1070, which “served to generate a culture of fear within minority communities.” Rather than making communities more secure, immigration laws like those that have passed in Arizona and Alabama do little more than drive a wedge between local law enforcement authorities and the communities they are entrusted to protect.

In the words of King.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

We must unite with our friends and neighbors to speak out for justice. We gain inspiration and courage to do so from ordinary citizens like Steve Dubrinsky, who did not back down from his support for undocumented immigrants when he received threats of a boycott of his Jewish deli in Birmingham.

Acts such as his are particularly symbolic, coming in the Deep South 50 years after Jews and blacks banded together to defeat institutionalized racism. The civil rights of documented and undocumented immigrants deserve no less attention from coalitions of the brave than did that earlier historic fight.

As a nation founded by and for immigrants, we must provide a hospitable legal framework for today’s immigrants to arrive and integrate. As Americans and Jews, we must once again form strategic alliances to demand that our elected officials in Washington prioritize the reforming our immigration system.

The iconic photo of Heschel and King marching together in Alabama has been an enduring symbol for black-Jewish relations. But it is also a powerful reminder that wherever injustice exists, we must join together and defeat it. Heschel and King would want us to do nothing less to fight for the victims of the inhumane Alabama law.

Gideon Aronoff is the president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the international migration agency of the American Jewish community; Jane Ramsey is the executive director of the Chicago-based Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, which combats poverty, racism and anti-Semitism in partnership with Chicago’s diverse communities.

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