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In Alabama, fear and confusion over immigration law

LEEDS, Ala. — Alabama's estimated 130,000 illegal immigrants are worried. They are confused. And in some cases, they have disappeared.

They have disappeared from classrooms and from tomato fields.

Last week, some had disappeared from the Guadalajara Jalisco restaurant, a former diner now serving Tex-Mex fare to a largely American-born clientele in this sleepy town east of Birmingham.

Manager Fredy Vergara had lost three of his 12 employees, and more workers said they planned to leave soon, fleeing in fear of Alabama's new immigration law.

Waiter Ever Salas struck out for Washington state. Elbia Manzilla, for Texas. A hostess named Joana was a legal resident, but her parents were not, Vergara said. They would probably head out soon for Chicago.

On Wednesday afternoon, the regulars were rolling in for the lunch rush, and Vergara's staff was making do, serving up enchiladas and chile rellenos, brisk and courteous.

"But all we're thinking about," said Vergara, a legal resident from Colombia, "is immigration."

The bulk of the new immigration law, the nation's strictest, is now in effect after being upheld Sept. 28 by a federal judge.

Other states, including Arizona, Georgia and Colorado, have passed similar laws in the past several years in a growing trend by state legislatures to crack down on illegal immigration within their borders. Alabama's new law is the only one to withstand federal lawsuits and other legal challenges.

"I have no doubt that this is the best thing for the long-term economic health of our state and no doubt that this is what a majority of the people of Alabama wants," said state Sen. Scott Beason, chief sponsor of the measure. "We have almost 10 percent unemployment, and we need to put our people to work. I understand there are concerns, but the law needs to be given a chance."

Despite such assertions, the law has aroused condemnation and concern from an assortment of Alabamans, including some unusual allies. White farmers, including conservative Republicans, complain that their field crews have fled and that their crops will rot on the vine. Black church and civil rights leaders, whose communities suffer from high unemployment, decry the law as a reprise of Alabama's racist history.

"These Republican politicians are running for office on Christian values, but this law is in blatant disregard of Christian values. It is bringing back the shameful and ugly past of our state," said the Rev. Roger Price, pastor of Birmingham's iconic 16th Street Baptist Church, which was bombed in 1963 during the civil rights conflict.

So far, the evidence of an Alabama exodus is anecdotal. But proponents are already hailing the law as an example of "attrition through enforcement."

Others, like Mary Bauer, legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, are calling the law a "humanitarian crisis." She said her anti-discrimination group had set up a hot line after the judge's ruling and received 2,000 calls from worried families.

Callers were afraid to drive sick relatives to the doctor. Kids at school were being bullied. Municipal water companies were refusing to establish new service for people who couldn't prove they were legal.

"It is a dark day here in Alabama," Bauer said.

Some businesses are already feeling the effects. In northeast Alabama, the owners of Smith & Smith Farms were trying to harvest 90 acres of tomatoes with three trucks of workers each day instead of the usual 12. "We have hired some whites," said Kathy Smith, wife of co-owner Leroy Smith. "Some of them work out a little bit. Some might work three hours and they quit."

Jimmy Latham, a Tuscaloosa contractor and president of Alabama Associated General Contractors, said the law will slow down the rebuilding effort under way in the wake of the devastating spring tornadoes.

"We're seeing smaller crews and seeing work taking longer to accomplish," he said. The bill's authors, he said, may have assumed that native Alabamians would take the jobs that Latinos left behind, with state unemployment at 10 percent. "That has not been the case so far," he said.

State officials, meanwhile, have been battling widespread confusion. The state's homeland security director, Spencer Collier, has begun touring the state to brief law enforcement officers on how to apply the law.

The state education department has sent Spanish-language audio files to radio stations promising them that the immigration details they collect would not be passed on to federal officials, but to the Legislature to tabulate how many illegal immigrants were in schools.

In Tarrant, a working-class suburb of Birmingham, Latino parents with questions crammed into an information session at an elementary school with children in tow. This small school district was "maybe 1 percent" Latino a decade ago, superintendent Shelly Mize said. Today it's closer to 10 percent.

Monica Hernandez, an organizer with the Southeast Immigrant Rights Network, advised them not to open the door for anyone unless the person had a warrant — and to only give their name and address to police until they could obtain a lawyer.

The parents asked about rumors: Could the police nab you just for walking your kids to school?

No, Hernandez told them, the police must be conducting an investigation and must have a "reasonable suspicion" that a person is here illegally.

Information from the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post was used in this report.

Alabama's

immigration law

The law makes it a criminal offense for an illegal immigrant to register a car, pay a utility bill or rent an apartment, and it similarly penalizes anyone who hires, shelters or signs a contract with an illegal immigrant.

.fast facts

Alabama's

immigration law

The law makes it a criminal offense for an illegal immigrant to register a car, pay a utility bill or rent an apartment, and it similarly penalizes anyone who hires, shelters or signs a contract with an illegal immigrant.

In Alabama, fear and confusion over immigration law 10/09/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 10, 2011 12:33am]

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