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US: Alabama's Samaritans Mitigate Strict Law

Published in: The Houston Chronicle

Well over a third of Alabamians think the state's controversial new immigrant law is unfair, according to a recent poll by Alabama State University. And they are turning their feelings into action. During a recent visit to Alabama, it was clear that many are acting as good Samaritans to mitigate a bad law.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, almost two-thirds of people living in the U.S. without immigration status have been here for more than 10 years. That's more than 7 million of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants estimated to be in the U.S. And in that time, people build lives. They meet neighbors and get to know people at work. They meet their kids' teachers and the parents of their classmates. They make friends at church.

In Alabama, under the new state law, unauthorized immigrants are increasingly afraid to drive for fear of being pulled over, arrested and deported. Numerous immigrants told us they have made difficult decisions not to take children to get medical care, to pull children out of cheerleading and Boy Scouts, and even to stay home from church.

Despite the climate of fear, many have found comfort from the actions of U.S. citizens and legal residents to mitigate the impact of the law, known as HB 56. Neighbors are helping to stock up on groceries or pick up medicines. U.S. citizens register mobile homes in their names so that unauthorized families don't risk contact with an overzealous government official.

One mother was sad she could no longer go to her child's volleyball and basketball games, but she appreciates that "a nice American parent" takes her child to practice and games. Several reported their employers were offering rides to work.

It's not surprising that 25 percent of Alabamians polled by ASU said they know someone who has been affected by the law. And many of these Alabamians recognize these unauthorized immigrants as neighbors and friends. We asked one of these new Samaritans in Alabama, a legal resident of Latino descent, why she helps. She told us, "They are all part of our Latino family."

Legislators who support strict state laws against immigrants often try to criminalize the efforts of good Samaritans. They push anti-sanctuary laws that prohibit cities or counties from protecting unauthorized immigrants. HB 56 makes it a crime to offer unauthorized immigrants a ride or a place to stay. Those who try to help an unauthorized immigrant enter into a business transaction with the state, like renew a motor vehicle tag, are subject to the same penalty of one to 10 years in prison and up to $15,000 in fines. Some of these provisions were blocked by a federal court, and even some legislators who voted for HB 56 want to revise them.

But whether or not these provisions are modified for good Samaritans, the larger point is this: In Alabama, as throughout this country, efforts to fight for the rights of people who have no vote have always included those who are not directly affected but who know and believe that, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Proof does not only come from Alabama. After Georgia passed a law barring unauthorized students from public colleges, a group of four professors set up Freedom University, offering those students free college-level classes. And a recent poll by Fox News indicates that 66 percent of people across the country support allowing unauthorized immigrants a path to citizenship if they meet certain requirements, like paying back taxes and passing a background check.

Yet as states ring in 2012, and with it the start of many legislative sessions, there is a new spate of state immigration enforcement proposals. One would think that the fits and starts of Alabama's immigration law might deter states from following in these footsteps, but history says otherwise. Several lawsuits and court injunctions in Arizona did nothing to deter Alabama from trying to become the state with the strictest immigrant law in the nation.

Any state trying to look tough on immigration should learn a lesson from the Alabama Samaritans. States may try to make living impossible for unauthorized immigrants. But they cannot prevent their citizens from helping their neighbors. Alabama's law should be repealed. The only effective place to change the immigration status quo will be in Congress.

Ginatta is the advocacy director and Meng is a researcher for the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch.

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