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US/Alabama: ‘No Way to Live’ Under Immigrant Law

Repeal Act That ‘Attacks Every Aspect’ of Unauthorized Immigrant's Life

(Washington, DC) – Alabama’s new immigrant act denies unauthorized immigrants and their families, including US citizen children, their basic rights, threatening their access to everyday necessities and equal protection of the law, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 52-page report, “No Way to Live: Alabama’s Immigrant Law,” documents the effect of the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer Citizen and Protection Act, commonly known as HB 56, on unauthorized immigrants and their families, as well as the larger Alabama communities in which they live. It is based in part on first-hand accounts by 57 Alabama residents, including citizens and permanent residents, who reported abuse or discrimination under the law.

One of HB 56’s sponsors declared during debate that the law “attacks every aspect of an illegal alien’s life.” In seeking to drive unauthorized immigrants from the state, the law does not in any way acknowledge that many have lived in the state for years and have deep and extensive ties to the state through US citizen family, work, and community life. 

“Many of the unauthorized immigrants we met and their families are deeply attached to the state,” said Grace Meng, researcher for the US Program at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Their children are obviously affected, but we also met a teacher who fought back tears as she described her students’ fears, a minister who lost 75 percent of his congregation, and a Latino permanent resident who was stopped by a state trooper for no reason except ethnicity.”

Many unauthorized immigrants and their families have left the state, and those who remain find life increasingly difficult, Human Rights Watch found. Under the Beason-Hammon Act, unauthorized immigrants are prohibited from entering into “business transactions” with the state. An unauthorized immigrant who tries to do so is committing a Class C felony, punishable by 1 to 10 years in prison and up to $15,000 in fines. As a result, state and local agencies have declared that unauthorized immigrants cannot sign up for water and other utilities, live in the mobile homes they own, or renew licenses for their own small businesses.

Several people reported to Human Rights Watch that victims of crimes were afraid to report them to the authorities. Some who had been victims of wage theft felt they could not recover those wages because the law denies unauthorized immigrants the right to enforce contracts in Alabama’s courts. They also cannot be granted bail, no matter how minor the offense.

The new law has given police and private citizens effective license to discriminate against unauthorized immigrants, as well as minority US citizens and permanent residents, Human Rights Watch found. A young man who is an unauthorized immigrant described being stopped and arrested by the police for not having a driver’s license, and being told repeatedly by the officer, “You have no rights.” An employee at a major store told a permanent resident that she could not fill her prescription there because she is not a US citizen. A US citizen mother reported that her native-born US citizen daughter came home crying from school one day because her classmate had told her she had to go back to Mexico.

Human Rights Watch also documented numerous ways the law harms Alabama’s children. Although a provision that requires schools to check students’ immigration status was temporarily blocked by a federal court, many families withdrew their children from school and fled the state. Those left behind are fearful and anxious, Human Rights Watch found. One mother said that her Alabama-born daughter no longer feels she belongs and asks, “Why are we here? They don’t want us.” Several parents reported making the difficult decision not to go to medical appointments for fear of being stopped while driving. One of them said she was even afraid to get on the road to take her daughter to the hospital when she had an asthma attack.

Alabama’s law has also begun to affect the state’s economy and its image. Farmers report a shortage of workers, businesses that rely on immigrant communities are struggling, and foreign companies are reconsidering their investments.

While every country has the authority to regulate the entry of immigrants into its territory, to deport those who have made an unauthorized entry, and to enforce its immigration laws against those no longer authorized to remain, international law requires that everyone is entitled to fundamental human rights by virtue of their humanity, Human Rights Watch said. The fact that the law infringes on the rights of children, and potentially thousands of minority citizens and legal residents, is additional reason for concern.

As the report went to press, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange recommended that the state legislature modify or repeal some provisions of the law. He also issued guidance letters to state agencies to limit the impact of the law regarding access to utilities and housing. Some legislators have expressed support for modification or repeal, while others oppose any weakening of the law whatsoever. Litigation over the law continues in state and federal courts over the constitutionality of several provisions. Meanwhile, uncertainty about the law’s implementation fuels fears among Alabama’s unauthorized immigrants and their families.

A coalition of local and national immigrant rights’ organizations plans to gather on December 17, 2011, at the State Capitol in Montgomery to protest the law and call for a full repeal.

Most of the unauthorized immigrants Human Rights Watch interviewed have lived in the US for at least 10 years, and many have US citizen children. These numbers are mirrored nationwide, as recent research shows nearly two-thirds of unauthorized immigrants have lived in the US at least 10 years, and nearly half are parents of minor children. What is happening in Alabama demonstrates that enforcement-only efforts targeted at unauthorized immigrants are likely also to compromise the rights of US citizens and permanent residents and to harm the communities and economies that depend on them.

“Over and over in Alabama, we heard immigrants assert their humanity and declare, ‘Legal or illegal, I’m human,’” Meng said. “Alabama should recognize the humanity and fundamental rights of all the state’s residents and immediately repeal the Beason-Hammon Act.” 

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