Department of Justice officials made a surprise appearance at a community forum in Birmingham, Ala. on Thursday evening, encouraging residents to report civil rights violations in the wake of the state's harsh new immigration law.
The law, H.B. 56, requires police and some government officials to demand proof of legal status if they have "reasonable suspicion" a person may be in the country illegally. So far, it has driven many undocumented immigrants and Latino residents out of the state.
Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, and a handful of department staffers and attorneys attended the forum, which was hosted by the local branch of the NAACP and held at Glen Iris Elementary School. Perez and panelists from local immigrant advocacy groups sat at a table at the school, several feet from a banner that said "Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month," and listened as men and women in the room voiced their fears about the law.
Some immigrants said they were unsure how to get to work, because renewing their license plates would now require them to show immigration papers, and any traffic stop could now lead to an officer detecting them as undocumented. Others said they feared sending their children to school, now that public schools might ask their children about their legal status. Some asked whether they should flee the state, leaving their jobs and homes behind.
One man questioned why Alabama legislators would pass such a law, wondering aloud whether it meant Latinos and other immigrants are unwelcome in the state.
"Can anyone tell me the motives behind this law?" he said, according to someone in the room. "We like it here, and we just don't understand why they don't like us."
For the most part, DOJ officials simply listened, taking notes on the concerns raised. They stuck around after the meeting to talk to community members directly, and plan to meet with more on Friday.
The DOJ has made attempts to block the law, which was adopted in the wake of Arizona's controversial immigration law S.B. 1070. But the Alabama law is even harsher: it requires people to prove legal status during virtually all interactions with the government.
"The atmosphere has just been so hostile," Helen Rivas, a community organizer in Birmingham and 30-year Alabama resident, told HuffPost after the forum. "The people who want people gone have done such a good job at poisoning the atmosphere and demonizing [immigrants]. It's really scary."
The DOJ challenged the laws in Arizona and Alabama, successfully blocking most portions of the Arizona law before it was implemented. But it was less successful in blocking the Alabama law. U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn ruled on Sept. 28 that most portions of the law could go into effect, despite arguments from the Justice Department that the law preempted federal immigration authority and could lead to civil rights violations.
The Justice Department appealed the decision last week, leaving it in the hands of a higher court.
In the meantime, DOJ officials seem to be trying to assure immigrants and residents of Alabama that their concerns are being heard and addressed.
On Thursday, the department announced a toll-free phone number and email address for people who live in Alabama to report abuses of the law and ask questions. (To reach the Justice Department, call 855-353-1810 or send an email to email@example.com.)
DOJ officials and community leaders in Alabama will meet on Friday with a 19-year-old undocumented immigrant named Victor Palafox, who has been living in Birmingham for 14 years.
Palafox is a founder of Alabama Dreamers for the Future, a group of young people pushing for immigration reform. He spoke to Perez and other justice department officials after the forum, telling them stories of men and women he has met who have already been affected by the law.
"Here in Alabama, the situation is very dire," he told HuffPost after the forum. "Effects are very visible. People are leaving left and right."
Rivas said the organizations she works with, Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice and Latinos Unidas de Alabama, are bombarded with calls from immigrants who are unsure how they should respond to the law. She said it's difficult to tell them because it's still unclear: until the appeals court makes its decision, no one knows whether the law will remain in place.
Still, she said the Justice Department's involvement is a positive step.
"I never thought I'd be hanging out with the FBI and the Department of Justice so much, but they're on our side," Rivas said.