How Alabama taught me that immigration is a civil rights issue

Maricela García is an immigration activist in Birmingham, AL. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Living in the Pacific Northwest, arguably the political and cultural opposite of the Deep South, it’s easy to think in stereotypes. Until recently, my knowledge of the region was limited to a short list that read something like: powerful hospitality, complicated history, good food, bad politics.

I spent the past couple weeks traveling to small towns throughout the South screening a documentary I had worked on. It played in museums, community centers and tiny rural theaters through a program called the Southern Circuit.

My film (titled “Barzan”) is largely about immigration issues, and I was curious, even a little nervous, about how the film might be received.

Immigrant rights activists in gather at Kelly Ingram Park–site of many protests during the civil rights struggle in Birmingham–to call for immigration reform. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

I was particularly anxious about Alabama. In 2011 , the state passed one of the country’s harshest immigration laws, House Bill 56.

This law, among other things, banned landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants, required schools to check the status of students and police to arrest suspected immigration violators. Much of the bill has since been dismantled in the courts, but I wondered what sort of attitudes had set the stage for the bill’s passing in the first place.

The night of our Alabama screening, the audience was small — 10 people clustered in back of the theater. The house lights came up to polite applause, but the topic hit home and had folks lingering over a well-stocked snack table long after the credits rolled.

“Immigration has been used to pull people further into the conservative movement here,” said Matthew Glover, 29, who serves on the Good Hope, Ala., City Council when he’s not working as an auto-parts delivery-truck driver. “They really beat into your mind that (immigrants) are stealing from you … that they’re taking money out of your pockets.”

Glover said that, ironically, it was negative economic impact that ultimately turned people in his town against HB 56. Businesses, especially Alabama’s chicken farms, lost profits when many of their undocumented workers disappeared, seemingly overnight.

For that night’s moviegoing crowd, immigration issues were inextricably linked to economic challenges and many felt that immigration had been used as a political tool to help explain much of the state’s struggle with poverty and unemployment.

An hour south, in Birmingham, home to some of the most significant civil rights protests of the 1960s, it is the connection between immigration issues and civil rights that motivates a new generation of activists.

“People felt that we had gotten past the ’60s,” said the Rev. Angie Wright describing the passage of HB 56, “and then we were being seen again as that place of hate.”

Immigrant rights activists in gather at Kelly Ingram Park–site of many protests during the civil rights struggle in Birmingham–to call for immigration reform. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Wright was across the street from the site of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing with other immigration activists at Kelly Ingram Park — a memorial to the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s. The group was there to call for national, comprehensive immigration reform. Speakers called for a country that “has no second-class citizens” and “welcomes all equally” in a city that, only a generation ago, had some of the strongest segregation laws in the nation.

The connection between the civil rights movement and the push for immigration reform felt very real. The most real, perhaps, to immigrants like Maricela Garciá, who came to Alabama from Oaxaca, Mexico, 14 years ago in search of a better life.

Garciá, who has been working to organize her community to fight for immigrant rights ever since the passage of HB 56, says the lessons of the civil-rights movement inform her work.

“There is strength when you get together,” she said, adding that she believes that the darkest of circumstances often offer the greatest opportunity for change.

“HB 56 was bad for us, it’s true,” she said after placing a yellow daisy at a memorial for the victims of the 1963 church bombing, “but it’s good for us, too, because now there are many groups organizing, and there’s power in this community.”

Much more power, and complexity, than this Seattleite could have possibly imagined just a few weeks ago.

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.

5 Comments

  1. Someone needs to understand that ILLEGAL ALIENS from another country is a FEDERAL issue, what part of citizens from another country invading the US do you not understand?? This is not state to state migration, this is one country invadint another country and being allowed to do it by a sympathetic liberal government that wants them to be made citizens so they can vote Democrat. Never mind that they are breaking numerous laws and defying the very principles this country was founded on, SOVERINGTY……

    1. Aleric, you should read the articles before posting cookie-cutter anti-immigrant comments. Your perspective is welcome here, but only if you’re respectful enough to actually engage with the issues raised.

  2. I believe that there will be some sort of immigration reform that will grant amnesty and possibly a path to citizenship for those that have entered the U.S. illegally as of a certain date. There are many that are advocating for such reform. My question to those that support such reform is, “What should happen to those that enter the country after that set date”.

  3. The thing that has bothered me all along about the “immigrations” issue is that is is being called a civil rights issue. How can that be, we are dealing with individuals who Maricela Garcia, who according to the article came to this country 14 years ago looking for a better life. She entered this country illegally with the idea that she could simply walk across a border or over stay a visa and begin a new life her in America. We calm to be a nations of laws but here we have an individual who is a part of a group of 11M+ souls who have all decided that they are above the law and they can and should be able to do what they want rather than what the law of this country say they can do. Any immigration reform, and we do need to reform how and who is allowed to come to this country, is badly needed but to simply say that the 11M+ who have entered this country under a less than legal status must have a path to citizenship is both foolish and counter productive. We did exactly the same thing in 1986 when the Simpson/Mazzoli bill was passed and provided a path to citizenship for the 3.7M people who entered this country illegally. 25 years later we are dealing with three time that number. Lunacy has been described as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

  4. Thanks for sharing great post. I am planning to visit Montgomery With my family in next month. I have no Knowledge About Alabama Civil Rights,Your information helpful to me .

Comments are closed.

5 Comments

  1. Someone needs to understand that ILLEGAL ALIENS from another country is a FEDERAL issue, what part of citizens from another country invading the US do you not understand?? This is not state to state migration, this is one country invadint another country and being allowed to do it by a sympathetic liberal government that wants them to be made citizens so they can vote Democrat. Never mind that they are breaking numerous laws and defying the very principles this country was founded on, SOVERINGTY……

    1. Aleric, you should read the articles before posting cookie-cutter anti-immigrant comments. Your perspective is welcome here, but only if you’re respectful enough to actually engage with the issues raised.

  2. I believe that there will be some sort of immigration reform that will grant amnesty and possibly a path to citizenship for those that have entered the U.S. illegally as of a certain date. There are many that are advocating for such reform. My question to those that support such reform is, “What should happen to those that enter the country after that set date”.

  3. The thing that has bothered me all along about the “immigrations” issue is that is is being called a civil rights issue. How can that be, we are dealing with individuals who Maricela Garcia, who according to the article came to this country 14 years ago looking for a better life. She entered this country illegally with the idea that she could simply walk across a border or over stay a visa and begin a new life her in America. We calm to be a nations of laws but here we have an individual who is a part of a group of 11M+ souls who have all decided that they are above the law and they can and should be able to do what they want rather than what the law of this country say they can do. Any immigration reform, and we do need to reform how and who is allowed to come to this country, is badly needed but to simply say that the 11M+ who have entered this country under a less than legal status must have a path to citizenship is both foolish and counter productive. We did exactly the same thing in 1986 when the Simpson/Mazzoli bill was passed and provided a path to citizenship for the 3.7M people who entered this country illegally. 25 years later we are dealing with three time that number. Lunacy has been described as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

  4. Thanks for sharing great post. I am planning to visit Montgomery With my family in next month. I have no Knowledge About Alabama Civil Rights,Your information helpful to me .

Comments are closed.