HB 56: How Alabama Won the Anti-immigrant Race by Beating Arizona at Its Own Game

As I write this, the memory of Arizona envelops my vision. During the first half of 2011, I remember watching the realities of SB 1070 in Arizona unfold and the outrage of people throughout the country as Arizona promulgated what was then the worst anti-immigrant law in the country. As all of SB 1070's effects were burgeoning across the country, mutating and manifesting themselves under the guise of law, I said one thing to myself in suburban Birmingham, Ala. Thank God this can never happen in Alabama, a state in the Heart of Dixie, very distantly located from the Mexican-American border.

On June 9, 2011, Governor Robert Bentley signed HB 56, misleadingly called the Hammon-Beason Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, into law, turning Alabama into the host of the country's worst anti-immigrant law. Here in Alabama, the law jettisoned itself through the legislature with a majority of the population not even being aware of its existence, of the intents, of the history behind it, nor of the malignancy that was about to directly inject itself into our society, into our state, and into our hearts. In essence, Alabama had taken the bar from Arizona and raised it to a level that no other state has been able to reach or surpass.

The buildup to HB 56 here in Alabama was similar to Arizona in the sense that it garnered regional and national outrage. We were faced with the reality that Alabama had taken to pompously writing a law that had Alabama regress to an era where basic human liberties were restrained under a mantra of law. Our state is now wielding a legislative trident composed of social, political, and economic barbs that serve as a gilded response to a nationwide problem; a trident that fails to address the complexity of the task at hand or offer a pragmatic way to cope with it.

Here in Alabama, we live a simple life. I have said it before; we are not a California, a Florida, a New York, an Illinois, nor an Arizona. We're not even a border state. We do not get a constant influx of immigrants, and the immigrants that live here usually live here for over a decade, establishing families, opening up businesses, and raising their children, usually American-born. In Alabama, we have successfully engrained ourselves into the very essence of this state, and so we rightfully take ownership of what is truly ours. When the Tuscaloosa tornadoes struck in 2011, it was through the hands of immigrants that a large portion of Alabama was rebuilt. No one can dare deny this actuality, yet HB 56 was being debated during the aftermath of the Tuscaloosa tornadoes.

Like Jose Antonio Vargas first espoused, we are not who you think we are; we are workers, students, families, professionals; we are human. Our businesses, our labor, our minds, and our futures drive Alabama forward, which is why there was a sharp, potent feeling of betrayal when HB 56 passed. As Sept. 1, the date when HB 56 was to go into effect, loomed ever closer, fear flooded our communities.

Entire homes were sold in a matter of days of hours, sometimes fully-furnished.

Children would go to school crying, withdrawn from school, or, sometimes, not even enrolled.

Yard sales would sprout up like weeds, indicating that yet another family would be leaving Alabama behind them.

Law enforcement officials feared lawsuits due to a provision in HB 56 that allowed any person to report them for not enforcing HB 56.

Immigrant businesses closed, burning the thousands of dollars that took to start them.

In the most painful cases, immigrants who had fled Arizona or Georgia to escape to Alabama once again had to leave in light of another anti-immigrant law.

As HB 56 descended over our communities, the amount of horror stories would begin to let themselves know. During that time, I, personally, could not accept the reality. I felt a sense of deafening silence as I looked to the calendar and counted down the days until our lives would be forever changed. At the time, my family and I were planning to leave behind thirteen years in Alabama, our home, and our life in pursuit of another state hundreds of miles away. I remember having to sit down with my brother and mother, looking up apartment prices, schools, universities, and humorously sitting aghast when I noticed the lack of Southern restaurants. My family was not the only one. In my neighborhood alone, dozens of families left for other states, or in some cases, their home country. This could be the end of our story; I could tell you that all the families left, that our communities remain paralyzed with fear, and that our lives were utterly destroyed. I would be lying to you if I allowed such a myth to perpetuate itself against our reality.