Fifty-seven years after a historic Supreme Court ruling put an end toracial segregation, Alabama is in the grip of another civil rights crisis, only this time one affecting Hispanics.
“People are fleeing the state, they’re afraid to step out of their homes, they’re made to be criminals,” said Sam Brooke, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery-based group that fights racism and organized intolerance.
Brooke was referring to the impact of Alabama state law HB56, whose Draconian measures are considered the toughest yet in a wave of state laws seeking to clamp down on illegal immigration, mainly by Latin Americans.
“It is shameful that this is happening in the birthplace of the civil rights movement and the struggle for rights,” he told AFP.
Memories are still fresh here of the boycott of public buses byMartin Luther King in 1955 after Rosa Parks, a black woman, was arrested for violating Montgomery segregationist laws by refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man.
Firebomb attacks on King’s house in 1956 and the burning of Baptist churches all followed the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling on “Brown vs Board of Education” that ended racial segregation inpublic schools.
The legacy of that bitter civil rights struggle, a point of pride here, is being tested by what rights activists see as a powerful backlash, only this time targeting the 11 million immigrants in the country without papers, an estimated 130,000 of them in Alabama.
“The goal is to make life so unpleasant, so unlivable that people self-deport,” said Olivia Turner, executive director of the Amerian Civil Liberties Union of Alabama.
HB56, which went into effect September 28, follows similar laws in Arizona and Georgia, which have been challenged by the administration of President Barack Obama as infringing on federal prerogatives.
It gives police the power to detain any immigrant on a “reasonable suspicion” they are in the country illegally, and outlaws business transactions with illegal immigrants.
The law also established that public schools can check the immigration status of its students and that all immigrants must carry identification showing that they are legal residents.
Those last two provisions were blocked by a federal court two weeks ago, too late for the thousands of illegal immigrants who abandoned their jobs in the fields and on construction sites and fled to neighboring states.
“Many people left for fear that they would be caught in the street. Many parents thought that the schools would ask their children for papers for their whole family, and they left at night to other states,” said Claudia Hendley, legal advisor to the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama.
A spokeswoman for the Montgomery Police Department, Sergeant Donna Mackey, said the police “are tasked with enforcing all laws and we will enforce this one.”
“Montgomery is not a sanctuary city. We were taking illegal persons into custody before this law came about. We, the Montgomery Police Department, have made multiple arrests this year,” she said.
On the streets of Montgomery, the state capital, and in Birmingham, the state’s largest city, one rarely crosses paths these days with Hispanics in public places.
In some Hispanic neighborhoods they are more visible but are still cautious when talking to a reporter, lowering their heads and looking around.
Latin supermarkets and Mexican restaurants acknowledge that business is in free fall.
Daniel Valencia, who owns taco shops in the Birmingham suburbs of Hoover and Pelham, worries that he will be bankrupt within a month.
“A lot of people have left. It’s as if the ground swallowed them,” he said.