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“No Juan Crow!”: Documenting the Immigration Debate in Alabama Today

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 18, Number 3, Fall 2012
pp. 49-56 | 10.1353/scu.2012.0022

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On June 1, 2011, the Alabama state legislature passed the “Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayers and Citizens Protection Act,” or HB 56. Newly elected Republican governor Robert J. Bentley signed the bill on June 9. HB 56 is the keystone piece in the “Handshake with Alabama,” the agenda promoted by the new Republican majority in the Alabama statehouse.1

The bill gained quick notoriety for outdoing Arizona, Georgia, and all other states in the restrictions and penalties levied on unauthorized immigrants, as well as on the citizens, community members, employers, and health and law enforcement agencies that assist, employ, or regulate them. HB 56 required public schools to verify the citizenship status of enrolling students, mandated police officers to check the immigration status of someone stopped for even a minor offense, if “reasonable suspicion” existed about such status, and prohibited citizens from knowingly assisting someone who was in the state and country without proper documentation. Moreover, the bill imposed severe financial penalties on employers who failed to verify the immigration status of workers.2

The Department of Justice, community, civil, and religious groups, as well as the Alabama aclu and the Southern Poverty Law Center, sued to prevent the bill’s implementation on September 1. After temporarily enjoining it, federal district judge Sharon Blackburn ruled on September 28 to uphold several provisions of the bill while blocking others. Currently, employers must still participate in the e-verify system, public schools must check newly enrolling students’ citizenship status, and law enforcement officers may, under certain conditions, check someone’s “papers.”3

Proponents of HB 56 often justify their support by pointing to the lack of adequate federal enforcement of immigration laws. The Republican sponsors, however, also describe it as a “jobs bill” that will “protect taxpayers” and boost employment for “native-born” citizens. This stance puts them at odds with the industrial, retail, and agricultural employers in the state who rely on low-wage immigrant labor, both legal and undocumented.4

Amid an increasingly divisive national political climate, the current economic recession created the context for the current phase of the immigration debate in


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A July 2011 Interfaith Vigil in protest of HB 56 passed the church, photographed by Darrell Crutchley.


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Martin Luther King Jr. pastored at the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and used a portion of the same route that civil rights protesters took during 1965’s Selma-to-Montgomery march, before eventually arriving at the statehouse steps, photographed by Darrell Crutchley.


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Opponents of the bill targeting illegal immigrants also had gathered at a March 2011 rally at the State House, photographed by Sebastian Kitchen.


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Protesters opposing HB 56 drew upon World War II icon “Rosie the Riveter,” the Latino civil rights movement of an earlier era, and often upon the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Birmingham rally, September 2011, photographed by Jennifer E. Brooks.


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Protesters opposing HB 56 drew upon World War II icon “Rosie the Riveter,” the Latino civil rights movement of an earlier era, and often upon the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Birmingham rally, September 2011, photographed by Jennifer E. Brooks.

Alabama and the South. More than a decade of successful industrial recruitment premised on enormous public subsidies and tax waivers had diversified Alabama’s economy by the twenty-first century. International automotive manufacturers, including Hyundai, Kia, and Mercedes-Benz, arrived, along with expanding lower-waged industries in poultry processing, produce farming, and construction. Beginning in the 1990s, Latino workers poured into the state to take newly created jobs in the low-wage, labor intensive sector of the state’s economy, work for which they were often recruited. In September 2008, even as the rest of the country struggled with the recession, the unemployment rate in Alabama stood at 5.4 percent, a near all-time low. One year later, however, as the recession finally settled into Alabama, that rate had more than doubled to 10.7 percent. Worse still, massive tornadoes struck the state in 2011, killing almost three hundred, decimating numerous communities, and damaging the poultry industry. In an economy transitioning...



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