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Event report: Is this Alabama? at CAP

15 February 2012

Is this Alabama? was hosted at the Center for American Progress on February 15th. Angela Kelley, Vice President for Immigration Policy and Advocacy at the Center for American Progress provided a background to Alabama’s harsh new immigration law H.B. 56. which goes beyond even Arizona’s infamous S.B. 1070 in requiring immigration checks of students joining elementary and secondary schools. Last year the millionth undocumented immigrant was deported by the Obama administration and there were lots of new anti-immigration laws introduced in various states across the country. According to Kelley, in Alabama we began to experience something that was no longer a fire drill but an actual war to deter immigrants from the state.

Commenting on a clip from Chris Weitz’s new film A Better Life which showed an Alabama man bumptiously condemning illegal immigration and an Alabama teacher who worries about the students that she will lose, White said that the immigration issue is one that runs very deep in American society. Pulitzer Prize winning Journalist, Jose Antonio Vargas, who was the interviewer in the clip, said that when he arrived in Alabama he saw and felt what it was like to be an undocumented immigrant there (Jose is himself public about the fact that he is undocumented). The man in the restaurant put a face to a guttural and visceral attitude that often occurs in the immigration debate. When we talk about immigration in Washington DC it is like almost like a political chess game, but seeing people like the teacher in Alabama raised much tougher questions about how you talk about the new law when you live there.

Columnist and author of the CAP report "Alabama's Immigration Disaster: The Harshest Law in the Land Harms the State's Economy and Society", Tom Baxter, said that there is a new demographic in Alabama now but there remains a contrast of “cussingness and compassion” which can be redolent of the days of segregation and the emerging civil rights movement. He grew up in Alabama in the civil rights era and witnessed all of that first hand. It was a region that classified itself in terms of black and white but now the demographic has changed greatly. The percentage of Hispanics is small as a whole, but there are industries that have seen a much more rapid demographic change. In those cases we have seen people thinking about immigration in terms of economic rivals. He said he thought complete repeal of the Alabama law is very unlikely. The economic impact is clear but the reasons are different. There may be ways to alter it to make it not so bad. Unfortunately much of the damage is already done.

One of the admirable things about A Better Life, Jose pointed out is that, whereas in everyday life you rarely hear about immigration from white Americans and African Americans, the film tried to bring out this perspective more by joining the dots between anti-immigration sentiment and the sentiments that led to the civil rights movement. He said that the state of affairs in the U.S. at the moment is like we all have collective amnesia because everyone except for the Native Americans came from somewhere else – a foreign country to settle in a new home. Jose said that the organization he founded, Define American, has been about asking people to discuss what it means to be an American. There is nothing worse than being in limbo, which is how it can feel when the debate is either/or and black/white. Many people who are in the same situation as him really love America and want to find a way that they can fit in.

The panelists discussed some ways that the immigration debate can move forward constructively. In Tom Baxter’s opinion we have to make this a moral challenge; to imagine criminalizing people face to face so that the real impact of their words become more apparent. He believes that the example and language of Martin Luther King is helpful in this respect. Chris said that he was grateful for the chance to do something useful with his film making because the future dangers are stark: we are going to be in big trouble if the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants start to leave. We need to recognize that they are bringing something to the country. By showing them the door we are damaging them and damaging ourselves. Jose said that the states who have introduced laws have done so because the federal government hasn’t done anything. Today we need to look at the population of America and recognize its changing ethnic face. It’s a process of humanization that needs to happen and in order to do so it needs to face the negative visceral reactions that people often have to immigration.

A video of the event can be watched here.

SPSSI has a large selection of immigration research and policy briefs which can be found at the Policy Hub.

Alex Ingrams
SPSSI Policy Coordinator

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