Hunted in Alabama

By Symmes, Patrick | Newsweek, February 13, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Hunted in Alabama

Symmes, Patrick, Newsweek

Byline: Patrick Symmes

The state is driving out its illegal immigrants. Businesses want them back. Meet the men and women in the middle.

The front door is locked on this brown-and-cream mobile home, an aluminum outpost at the end of a pine-tree trailer park beyond Birmingham, Ala. But the back door flaps open in a winter wind. Inside are a bag of red beans, some pet food, and a pair of high heels. Nothing else. Even the beds are gone. "Six people," a neighbor says in Spanish, struggling to recall something from the anonymity of immigrant life. "Men, women, children. The law came in, and one day they just didn't come home."

The law: that would be H.B. 56, Alabama's attempt at the nation's most rigorous crackdown on illegal immigrants. On Sept. 23, 2011, when H.B. 56 came into effect, it cut off all state and local services to the undocumented. No driver's licenses, no registration for cars, no scholarships, no hiring without a document check. Enrolling in one of Alabama's public colleges requires proof of legal residency in the United States. Hiring, renting property to, or simply "harboring" undocumented foreigners is illegal. H.B. 56's one-signature provision--deputizing local police officers to turn traffic stops into deportation proceedings--assumes powers long reserved to the federal government.

The law had its desired effect, sort of. Illegals did flee. Alabama reported a drop in school enrollment, especially in rural areas. This trailer and about 50 like it in a park of 300 were soon evacuated. Immigrants sold their possessions for cash and drove to Florida or California, wherever they felt safer.

But Alabama's crackdown hasn't played out quite as expected. A group of Mexican men unloading a pickup truck explain they fled the state, but after just a month in Florida, they came back. They pointed out an obvious irony: as H.B. 56 scared off some immigrants, others found that jobs were now going begging. And these men had now rented the same trailer for less than they paid in September.

"Alabama's a good place," said 51-year-old construction worker Javier Flores. "There's all types of people."

If Alabama is the GOP's latest front in the war on illegal immigration, then the battle is far from won. The tired and poor, the huddled masses, are still here, yearning to rent cheap and work hard. All the crackdown in Alabama has done is push people deeper into the woodwork. Yet immigrants remain everywhere in Alabama, hiding in plain sight, evading the crackdown with GPS strategies and shared text alerts. Family networks and the surprising kindness of strangers have given them camouflage.

In this tense environment, immigrants drive slowly and stay low. "We couldn't be more hidden," one man says.

In short, the law is immensely popular--and it's not working very well. It has disrupted business in Alabama, and enforcement is proving costly. The state legislature last week began work on modifying the law.

But modify only. "It won't be repealed," says a confident Gov. Robert J. Bentley, a Republican from Tuscaloosa. In one poll, 73 percent of Alabamans supported H.B. 56; Bentley notes that the measure is almost as popular nationally. "I never go on television without getting asked about it," he says.

Bentley, a physician who began working at the state capital in his 20s, calls federal policy a "failure" that requires Alabama to step in and "uphold the state and federal constitutions."

Besides, there's not much percentage in a Republican letting up on the issue. When Newt Gingrich suggested in a November debate that "immigration policy which destroys families" was a bad thing, he walked into a buzz saw of retribution from some conservatives. Last year state legislatures weighed 1,600 bills against illegal immigrants, and passed 300 of them, a populist wave that predates Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party and has a powerful grip on both parties.

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