HB 56: American Kids Pay The Price

The baby girl was born on October 3, weighing just 5 pounds 15 ounces. But just as she came into the world, her father, a dishwasher in a restaurant, was detained by immigration authorities, possibly to be deported.

The mother, who is 20 years old and also undocumented, lay in her hospital bed wondering what to do: wait a few months to see if the situation for immigrants in Alabama gets any better after it's new immigration law, HB 56, came into effect, or simply return to her native Guatemala with her two children--both native-born American citizens.

"I don't know how I'd do it. I just gave birth, I can't just pick up and move. I don't have anyone here. To stay here I need money so that we can pay rent and eat," she said. Her 2-year-old son, also born a U.S. citizen, played in the hospital room.

"If there's nothing I can do for my husband at this point, the only option I have is to go back to my country," the woman said. She's lived in the United States for five years.

Alabama immigration law HB 56, also called the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, requires that, if there is "reasonable suspicion" otherwise, law enforcement agencies must verify whether a person detained, arrested or stopped has a legal right to be in the U.S.

Among other provisions, it requires public school officials to verify if students are in fact illegal immigrants.

On Wednesday, federal judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn refused to block the enforcement of immigration law HB 56 while her decision to let key parts of the law stand is being appealed by the Department of Justice and civil-rights groups.

With this, fear continues to spread throughout Alabama's immigrant community, as many have packed up and fled the state. Others prefer to weather the storm by staying as far underground as possible, leaving home only when strictly necessary. Still others have chosento take their children out of school, to avoid the risk that they'll be asked about their immigration status--despite the fact that in theory, this provision is not supposed to apply to students who have already enrolled. Some undocumented or mixed-status families in Alabama are also choosing to notarize documents to grant relatives or friends legal power to decide what to do with their children--many of them U.S. citizens--if their parents are detained and eventually deported.

State Senator Scott Beason, one of the authors of SB 56, defended it in a meeting with supporters last month stating: "We crafted a bill that the vast majority of it mirrors federal law." This week, in front of local farmers in northeast Alabama, he added: "My position is to stay with the law as it is."

But the new law hasn't just impacted the state's undocumented immigrants. Their children, many of them native-born U.S. citizens, are also suffering the consequences of the state's immigration policies, amongst the most severe in the country.

It's been widely reported that many undocumented parents have already opted to take their children out of public school, because the family had already fled for another state or was about to do so.

The young mother in the hospital was accompanied by her neighbors: a young couple also from Guatemala and undocumented, with their three U.S.-citizen children. The husband has been living in the U.S. for ten years; the woman has lived here for eight.

Their story is the same one heard all over the state: they don't dare drive because they're afraid of being detained; they think twice before going to the market to buy food because they're afraid of being detained; they're afraid of going to the doctor because they're afraid of being detained; they're afraid to take their native-born U.S. citizen children to the doctor because they're afraid of being detained. Even taking the kids to school has turned into a nightmare, they said.

"Our daughter is still going to school, but we're thinking about taking her out. The thing is, she's afraid to go. Anything you do can be an excuse for them to detain you--and if you don't do anything, they'll make something up," the young father said.

The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (HICA) is getting bombarded with calls and appointments from immigrants looking for advice on all kinds of issues. The most frequent question: how they can grant legal power to relatives or neighbors to take care of their U.S. citizen children, or decide what to do with their property, if they're deported, explained Vanessa Stevens, communications coordinator at HICA.

"I already have a notarized document giving temporary power of attorney to the godmother of my son--he's just seven years old--to bring him to Mexico for me if I get deported," another mother from Oaxaca, Mexico told me. She's lived in Alabama for 11 years.

On Monday, five mothers--all of them white U.S. citizens--demonstrated in front of the federal district court in Birgminham against HB 56. They said that their partners and fathers of their U.S. citizen children, are all undocumented--and could be torn from their families at any moment. If this happened, they added, their children would no longer be able to live on the economic support of their fathers; they would have to seek public assistance instead.

"If you don't want to pay for our children, repeal the law," one of the mothers said.

All day, I heard stories like this, first-, second- and thirdhand, about the fears and uncertainty that HB 56 has generated--not just among adults but among children, and many of them U.S. citizen children at that. But the day ended on an ironic note. Listening to the radio, we heard a commercial about the importance of religion and family values. At the end of the commercial, the announcer asked: What would Jesus do?

EDITOR'S NOTE: The unnamed persons in this article requested anonymity to protect themselves and their families from risk of arrest.