04/03/2012 09:44 pm ET Updated Jun 03, 2012

We Can Defeat Alabama's State Hate Laws

As a young civil rights attorney, I began my career litigating in Alabama on education and housing issues. After losing a few airtight discrimination cases because juries felt that while my clients had been wronged the unlawful acts were just the way things were done, I was done with Alabama. I vowed to never go back. A couple of weeks ago, I broke my promise because of the civil rights crisis that exists in the aftermath of the passage of HB56, the most stringent anti-immigrant law in the country. I travelled to Birmingham as a part of a delegation of women leaders with We Belong Together, a national alliance calling for an end to anti-immigrant legislation. We were there to bear witness to the impact of the Alabama law.

In a few weeks, the Supreme Court will review Arizona's anti-immigrant law, SB1070, and perhaps signal the fate of the Alabama law. Alabama's HB56 is SB1070 2.0, going farther in its reach and impact on every aspect of the daily lives of immigrants. Like Arizona, the Alabama law legalizes racial profiling by allowing police to demand "papers" showing immigration status of people appearing to be immigrants. Its reach was extended by requiring proof of citizenship for business transactions such as establishing utility and government services, including access to the courts. Until a court decision halting the practice, the state also required that record of public school students' immigration status and that of their parents be collected. The law also made assisting and contracting with undocumented immigrants illegal. Whether the law is unconstitutional may soon be ascertained but in the meanwhile it is wreaking havoc on families, communities and the economy.

It is clear that the Alabama law is accomplishing its goal of, as one of its sponsors stated, making life "unbearable" for immigrants. It is also clear that it has created a civil and human rights crisis that should not be ignored. The We Belong Together delegation had the opportunity to meet with immigrant mothers and youth who are living in post-HB56 Alabama. They live in fear every day -- fear of arrest, deportation, separation from family, and loss of any means of providing for their families. For example, one mother explained that because she and her husband are undocumented, they do not go out together. They leave their home one-at-a-time for fear that if the they were out together they would both be "grabbed up" by the police and deported, leaving their children (some of whom are U.S. citizens) parentless. This same mother explained that when HB56 passed, she pulled her children out of all after-school activities. They now stay at home with nothing to do out of fear of deportation. Another woman recounted overcoming a relationship with an abusive husband with the help of a court system that she can no longer access due to the new law. A 14-year-old girl said, "when HB56 passed, Iost my dreams. It's a nightmare now." Six months ago, Jocelyn's mother left Alabama with her three-year-old sister; she hasn't seen them since. Jocelyn lives with an uncle who is now her guardian. She said, "I'm not doing well in school because I don't have my mom anymore. She's not here to wake me up in the morning." HB56 has lead to separation of many families because parents choose not to have their children living "on-the-run." These families have given neighbors, friends and employers powers of attorney to transact business on their behalf, as well as custody of their children.

Additionally, the law has given law enforcement the power to racially profile. One woman told the delegation that police sit at the entrance of the trailer park she lives in every day watching as residents come and go. The police target immigrants for stops and have cars impounded repeatedly for various minor violations. The police state and harassment by the police makes living there extremely uncomfortable for immigrants, pushing them further into the shadows of our society.

I am glad I broke my vow. It was important for me to go to Alabama to understand how HB56 is playing out. The stories I heard brought back memories of my days in Alabama in the 1990s. Alabama was the first place I was called a Yankee, and that was by the security officers at the federal court house. I knew then that there were some in Alabama who didn't like outsiders. But I also know that Alabama has such great promise. The state was the stage for some of the most hard-fought struggles and most cherished wins of the civil rights movement. It was there in Birmingham that four little girls were killed in a church because of hate and young people were hosed, beaten and arrested as they pushed for civil rights. In Selma, those marching for voting rights were beaten on what became known as Bloody Sunday. It was also the place where Jim Crow took its largest blows. It is a state that has shown tremendous progress in mending its sordid past. But HB56 has pushed Alabama back into the dark ages.

We cannot fix our national immigration system through state-hate laws that vilify and criminalize hard-working people seeking a better life for their families. There is no moral compass in self-deportation laws that tear families apart and legalize discrimination. The conservatives' war of attrition on immigrants is out-of-line with American values of liberty, freedom, justice and equality. Laws and practices that suck all dignity from people, usurp all civil and human rights, while causing people to live in fear of not only hate-mongers but also government, is a history Alabama should not repeat. Alabama and the nation can do better.