Pedro and his wife, both of whom are undocumented immigrants, decided to put all their belongings in the car and leave with their son for Arizona. Even with its SB 1070 immigration law, they expect Arizona to treat them better than Alabama under its law HB 56.
In a housing complex full of small homes in the city of Florence, two hours from Birmingham, relatives and friends said goodbye to Pedro and his family as they packed and checked the brakes of their car in preparation for the long ride.
Pedro, a construction worker from the state of Guerrero, Mexico, lived in Alabama for seven years. "If it weren't for the law, I'd stay here, but I have a brother there (in Arizona) who says that everything's okay now and there are plenty of jobs," he said.
Life in Alabama is impossible, he told me, and he wasn't confident that the attempts to block the law through the courts would succeed. And even if it did, the immigrant community faces too hostile an environment here to stay, he added.
"You can't drive anywhere; you can't go out because all it takes is seeing a policeman to scare you", Pedro said.
This strategy of wearing down the immigrant community through draconian laws like HB 56 -attrition through enforcement-- is exactly the point for those who have written and endorsed these laws.
Pedro's story echoed those we heard from other immigrants gathered at his house. Some wonder if they should follow his path out of the state or weather the storm here and see if anything changes.
The mosaic of situations reflects how HB 56 has affected everyone, with and without documents alike.
Some undocumented immigrants have native-born U.S. citizen children. Some have undocumented children, some of whom were brought to Alabama as babies. That describes Lizbeth, Pedro's niece, a 19-year-old "Dreamer" (a student who would be eligible for the DREAM Act) who was brought here when she was 2 months old. She married an undocumented young man, and had a baby. Some couples are mixed-status as well--such as Katie, a young woman who was born in Alabama, and her partner, Freddy, an undocumented immigrant who came to the U.S. at the age of eleven. They have three children--all of them native-born citizens--and another on the way. And so on.
The person who'd arrived most recently of those we talked to had been in Alabama for five years. Others have been here for ten, eleven, thirteen, sixteen, twenty. Some are renters; some own their own homes. Everyone has a job: in hotels, cleaning offices and stores, in food processing plants, in the fields doing farm labor, in construction.
But for those without documents HB 56 turns driving to work into Russian roulette. "You're playing it every time, but you have to go to work because it's your responsibility to do it. For my wife and my baby girl, because Pampers don't buy themselves," said Lizbeth's husband, who works in a sawmill.
"Every morning, I have to leave thinking that I've left my sleeping child, and this could be the last time I get to see her," he said
Pedro's sister embodies many immigrants' fear of doing basic tasks, like buying food or going to the doctor. "Yesterday made about four weeks since I last went to the store. My children are eating only corn flakes and fruit because I'm afraid to go out. The day before yesterday the children came down with a bad case of the flu, but I couldn't take them to see the pediatrician, because I'm afraid to go out," she said.
Lizbeth said that "if it's my turn to get taken away, well, it's my turn." "I work all day cleaning stores with my mother. I drive her. I leave my daughter with my aunt, and all I can think of is that if they arrest me, and if I can't come back to see her, it would break my heart. This law is tearing a lot of families apart. We're not here to hurt anyone. We need help to get rid of this law because it's not doing anything good for Alabama, it's hurting the economy," she added.
Katie, the Alabama native, believes that the law is racist. If immigrants are working, "let them work and take care of their families, don't close the door on them." She had a message for the politicians who support the law: "You're so awful! Hispanics are helping out a lot here in Alabama." "And I have a message for Obama. Please, help Hispanics. They helped you."
Lizbeth's husband said that "if the governor says he signed the law to open up jobs for Americans who could do the work immigrants have been doing, why has the economy started slumping so quickly? We're seeing a labor shortage all over the place and no one is coming out to shop in stores because everyone's leaving."
He works at the mill from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., for $7.25 an hour. "I can't tell you how many Hispanics have lost fingers or hands. I also worked as a roofer, on houses that were sometimes 2, 3 stories. It's dangerous work, and in the summer, when the shingles are hot, it's very hard. If Americans can do the jobs that we've done, how come nobody's showing up to take the jobs we've left in the chicken farms and the fields?" he asked.
Journalist Gabriel Thompson wrote the book Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing The Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do, in which he recounts his experiences doing the harsh labor immigrants take on for little money and under precarious conditions.
Thompson worked in a chicken processing plant in Russellville, Alabama, near Florence. In a recent article for ColorLines on HB 56 and how immigration had benefited Russellville, he wrote that "When I relocated to Russellville in 2008, I found that, as a citizen, it was exceedingly easy to 'steal' a job back...As I soon learned, the hard part wasn't getting the job; the hard part was keeping the job. During a single shift I could be asked to tear apart more than 7,000 chicken breasts by hand or carry and dump 30 tons of meat onto an assembly line."
Thompson wrote that immigration had helped Russellville in various ways, including stimulating the economy as consumers and business owners. The same can be said for other parts of the state.
As a young Mexican-born man told me in the city of Bessemer, "I'd been saving up to start a business, but they don't want us here."
And Pedro -one of those immigrants who'd been helping Alabama, as a worker and consumer- is already on his way to another state.
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