Hundreds packed the Alabama Statehouse courtyard on Tuesday to rally against the state's tough immigration law, with organizers saying they chose to send a message on Valentine's Day that lawmakers need to love and respect immigrants.
People bused in from across the state to demand repeal of the law that aims to be tough on those in the country illegally. Protesters carried signs reading, "Gov. Bentley, don't you have a heart?" "No Juan Crow" and "Una Familia, Una Alabama" while chanting in Spanish and English "no more HB56" (the bill that became the law) and "one family, one Alabama." They also delivered lollipops and Valentines to lawmakers, urging them to strike down the law.
Legislative leaders have said they plan to introduce a bill in the coming weeks to make subtle changes to the law. However, House Majority Leader Micky Hammon, one of the sponsors of the immigration bill, said the proposal will not make major changes and is not aimed at softening the law.
Rally organizers said the changes aren't enough, and a full repeal is needed.
"Tweaks are only temporary Band-Aids, not a permanent solution," said Zayne Smith, a coordinator with the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice.
The wide-ranging law requires police to determine citizenship status during traffic stops and bars government offices to verify legal residency for everyday transactions like obtaining a car license, enrolling a child in school, getting a job or renewing a business license.
Opponents say they'll spend more days at the Legislature lobbying against the law, parts of which have been blocked by federal courts. The law was passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and took effect in the fall. While opponents say it's hurting the state's economy and image, supporters say it's providing jobs for legal residents.
Dr. Samuel Addy, an economist and director of the Center for Business & Economic Research, predicts that the law will lead to a huge departure of immigrants from the state, leading to a dramatic reduction of demand for goods and services. This would shrink the state's gross domestic product by between $2.3 billion at $10.8 billion annually, and cost up to $264.5 million in lost tax revenue and between 70,000 and 140,000 jobs.
Carmen Espinoza, 17, a high school student at Montgomery Catholic, moved to the state from California last year. An immigrant from Mexico, she is in the country legally, but some friends and family members are not. She said she moved to live with her aunt because her family was worried about gangs and violence in southern California.
"In California, there was a big Hispanic community – we never had to deal with racism," Espinoza said. "Now here, when people see me the first think they ask is, 'do you have papers?' It's not fair. We're all equal."
Espinoza said she saw the trailer park where she lives with her aunt and two cousins clear out almost overnight after legislators passed the law. She said undocumented immigrants left 80 trailers behind with all of their possessions still inside.
She said teachers have made racist comments to her cousins, calling one a "hood Mexican." She lives in constant fear for her friends and family who are in the country illegally.
"It's a fear we all live with -- our family could be stopped because of our appearance," Espinoza said. "It's horrible to live in fear."
Espinoza's aunt, Irma Alvarez, 39, moved to Montgomery in 2008 because it was quieter than California and she thought it would be a good place to raise her two sons. She said she has a hard time understanding why lawmakers are targeting immigrants.
"We didn't agree to this treatment," Alvarez said. "We're here, we contribute to the community, we pay taxes."
She said her sons, age 11 and 14, didn't go to school for a few weeks when the law first passed – they were afraid of being asked for their papers. A requirement for schools to track the immigration status of students has been thrown out by the courts.
The Rev. Dr. Sharon Richards, president of the Metro Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the bill has caused an economic disaster.
"Everybody is appalled down there on the farms because there's nobody to pick the fruits and vegetables – they're rotting in the fields," Richards said. "It's affecting all industries. There are some jobs only immigrants are willing to do."
The president of the Alabama Federation of Republican Women disagrees. Elois Zeanah wrote in a Tuesday news release that the law is working, especially in reducing Alabama unemployment.
"Illegal aliens are self-deporting! Unemployment is down! Tax dollars paid in public benefits to illegal aliens are down!" she wrote.
Alabama's unemployment rate fell to 8.1 percent in December, down from 8.7 percent in November. Zeanah called on legislators to leave the law unchanged.
The expected changes are supposed to address objections raised by religious leaders, law enforcement and others.