B Illinois Congressman Luis Gutiérrez (D) has always said that the fight for immigration reform is a civil-rights issue for the immigrant community in the United States.
That community finds itself in dire straits in Alabama under its new law HB 56, which, even after a court ruling temporarily blocking some provisions from being enforced, continues to wreak havoc among families made up of immigrants, legal residents and citizens, and continues to affect the economy and the image Alabama is projecting to the country and the world.
Gutiérrez was in Alabama over the weekend, presenting a united front with African-American leaders in the state--led by the NAACP--in the fight against the toughest anti-immigration law in the United States.
In the historic center of Birmingham, which saw much of the 20th-century civil rights movement, we encountered a diversity of opinion among African-Americans regarding HB 56.
Some said that the situation the state's immigrants face amounts to a civil-rights and human-rights crisis. Others said that what's happening now can't be compared to the fight for civil rights for African Americans, but everyone agreed that it's morally wrong for persons who are just working for the betterment of their families to be criminalized and demonized to the point of having to flee the state. They also agreed that the law doesn't make economic sense.
In a barbershop which has been in operation for nearly 50 years, we talked to barbers and clients.
"Not only a civil rights but a human rights issue. It's supposed to be the land of opportunities and you're breaking up families, you're destroying families. But not just immigrants. It's also affecting the people they work for. To me, it's a disgrace how they've handled this. It'll result in racial profiling. And yes, it's a civil rights crisis because a lot of civil rights will be violated because of this law," said one of the patrons referring to HB 56.
"And with Alabama's past, you'd think that they would shy as far away from that as possible, instead of trying to be the leader on something that is so unpopular. People have worked so hard to change the image of this state, and to me it's a giant step backwards," he added.
Nor did he think that the jobs abandoned by immigrants fleeing HB 56 would be taken by U.S. citizens. "It won't work. In agriculture, for example, that's really hard work, it's demanding, and to be honest, most people won't want to do it or can't do it."
And referring to Republican State Senator Scott Beason, who championed the law, the customer added "It's all politics...there's always an agenda. Politicians have created more unemployment in this state than bringing in employment."
"It's politics because they think that this segment of the population will (eventually) vote a certain way, and if you don't want that, and if you can make them leave, it's less likely that they'll vote against you. Because I don't think that the great Senator Beason cares one way or the other who's working in the fields or who's working in construction. And now, all of a sudden they (immigrants) are doing something wrong? No," he said.
His conclusion: HB 56 is "a disgrace to the state."
A retired teacher who now sells encyclopedias for a living commented that the way (HB 56) is structured, "it's just a punitive kind of law, I just don't think it's fair."
"I would agree to an extent, it has parallels (between the African-American civil rights movement and the immigrant movement's fight today) for the people who are directly going through it that is similar. Now, being the descent that I am, maybe I wouldn't completely latch onto it as close, but I think from a human rights stand point, I think that perhaps I should," he said.
The politicians who pushed for the law argue that their objective is to open up jobs for Americans. "I think that the real reasons, for the most part, are because of personal prejudices," he allowed.
"People in political office, because they're greedy, because their objective is keeping those offices, tend to say what they think people want to hear. It's not good, but it happens."
A young University of Alabama student added that HB 56 is "uprooting and displacing a lot of families. Their livelihoods are basically being crushed because they don't have the proper papers. I disagree with how they came, but now that they're here 10,12, 20 years in, there's no way you can just tell somebody that they have to uproot their entire life and just go...I just don't think it's fair at all."
Some people, he told me, think that passing the law was good politics, but for him it was "morally wrong."
"I don't think that it's comparable to what happened during the civil-rights era, because they pulled out guns, hoses, dogs..., but I do feel is wrong."
But he added that it is a civil-rights issue "because they know who it will (HB 56) effect, who it will target the most, and hit the hardest, and that's the Latino demographic here in Alabama."
One of the barbers, meanwhile, said that "I used to have a lot of Mexican clients who left, and I miss them. I miss their money, and they're good people. As an African-American, it broke my heart to see them have to go through what we had to go through."
"I miss them. I know a lot of Mexicans. They work hard and I like them a lot. And I think that what's happening is wrong," he said.