Immigration: Alabama law leaves undocumented residents in limbo
- 7 December 2011
- From the section Magazine
How do you solve a problem like Maria? Alabama thinks it knows how. But the human and economic cost has been high.
Maria is 38, originally from Costa Rica. She's lived in the US for 16 years with her husband Emilio. She's had two children here, pays tax and rents a tidy apartment in a suburb of Birmingham.
On her dining table, a jigsaw puzzle lies almost finished: the Beatles striding out across Abbey Road.
In the months since Alabama's latest immigration law was passed, her world has shrunk.
"Before, when you have a problem, a car crash or something, or you feel unsafe, you can call the police. Now, when you want to call 911 [emergency] you think, uh-uh, that's not safe for us anymore."
Her reasoning is simple. The police may ask for proof that she in the state legally, and she is not.
The law, put into effect this September, allows police to demand proof of citizenship from those they suspect are living in the country illegally. They can then detain anyone who cannot provide proper documentation.
As a result, many immigrants have fled the state. Those who remain feel trapped.
"We spend less time outside now," says Maria, who is being identified with a pseudonym.
Alabama is the latest of half a dozen states that have taken immigration law into their own hands instead of relying on federal law. Lawmakers and other supporters of these laws draw parallels with the civil rights battles of the early 60s in Alabama.
Then, the federal government was forcing the states to obey the law. Now the states are acting, they say, because Congress will not.
It is a much-disputed justification of the new law.
An economic argument also draws Alabamians to the cause. Alabama has an unemployment rate well above the national average, at 9.3% compared to 8.6% across the US.
Proponents of the law say illegal immigrants are taking jobs that should be going to those with the right to live and work in the country.
Employers in construction, agriculture and services tell a different story. Privately and sometimes publicly, they say that Alabamians are not prepared to do the jobs filled by immigrants - legal and illegal.
Up on the slopes of Straight Mountain, about an hour's drive from Birmingham, Amy Dickie had her tomatoes picked "green" this year - pulled off the vines before her workforce fled the state. Other farmers left crops to rot.
"If the law is not changed, to be honest, I will be out of business," she says. "I will not be able to farm at all."
Ms Dickie pays the minimum wage and more, she says, and every worker is treated alike. She acknowledges that some of her crew may have left because they were working illegally, but says that legal workers left too. They were scared for their relatives and unwilling to be targeted by law enforcement.
As for Alabamians filling the new vacancies, Ms Dickie is blunt.
"Their bodies are not conditioned to take the weather, to take the work," she says. "They are not skilled in it and, with no disrespect, but if they are sitting at home drawing a cheque for not doing anything, they are not going to quit drawing a cheque to do this work."
The law is still popular in Alabama. But there has been a price.
Business leaders warn of damage to Alabama's image. It is a "right to work" state, where organised labour has little power. That has attracted dollops of foreign investment with good jobs alongside. The new law, however, has sometimes made life difficult for those overseas employers.
Ripples from the law have spread into the state's schools. Hispanic students, often American citizens by birth, have been withdrawn without notice by fearful parents.
At Glen Iris elementary school, headteacher Michael Wilson, a white teacher in a sea of African-American and Hispanic faces, sees the law as a reaction to the changing make up of America.
"I believe that it was written with a lot of hate and a lot of fear. When people look at the statistics and see that this country will… no longer be a Caucasian majority in so many years, I think that puts a lot of fear in the back of people's minds," says Mr Wilson.
That charge is vigorously rejected by the author of the legislation, State Senator Scott Beason.
"We are very very careful with the law. Over and over and over there's prohibition on any sort of profiling," he says. "You can't stop people for how they look. Another crime has to have been committed. We have been very careful to avoid that issue."
'Law is the law'
For the senator - and the majority of Alabamians - the issue is relatively simple.
"There will be people caught in a difficult situation, but the law is the law. And I think the person who is forgotten is that citizen who faces challenges because of that never ending flow [of immigrants]," says Mr Beason. "Your economy, your social structure, cannot deal with that sort of influx."
Caught in that difficult situation is Maria. Contracts she signed are now unenforceable, worth nothing. Employers try to lower her wages because of her status, she says. And the state that she and her children call home is actively trying to force her out.
"I know that I am not legally here, but I don't do anything wrong," she says. "I'm just working, just trying to get my kids to college."
They are the aspirations that built America. But what slack was cut for her and her kind once is no longer around in Alabama, and she is left, suddenly stranded, in a now-unwelcoming land.
Video produced by Anna Bressanin, images by Ilya Shnitser.