When Alabama’s tough immigration law, HB 56, took effect last September, Holy Cross Catholic Church in Russellville, AL, lost nearly 30 Hispanic families who left the state for fear of arrest. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 120,000 of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants live in Alabama, less than 2.5 percent of the state’s population.
Also, with the harvest season just beginning, Alabama farmers saw crops worth millions of dollars rotting in their fields because they lacked skilled workers to bring them in. The Alabama Center for Business and Economic Research estimates that HB 56 will cost the state 140,000 direct and indirect jobs, and the state’s GDP will shrink by $2.3 billion to $10.8 billion. Yet, Alabama which borders neither Mexico nor Canada reputedly has the harshest immigration law in the country.
Whereas under federal law, being in the United States without proper documentation constitutes a civil violation and cause for deportation, under Alabama law it’s a criminal offense. The Federal District Court in Birmingham issued preliminary injunctions that affect certain parts of the law, but HB 56 still penalizes anyone who knowingly employs, or rents to, undocumented immigrants. It nullifies any contracts entered into by undocumented immigrants and prohibits them from receiving state or local public services that some officials even interpret to include running water. Elementary and secondary schools are required to determine the immigration status of incoming students, thus intimidating many children and deterring some from attending school while their parents work.
Proponents of HB 56 claim undocumented immigrants take jobs away from legal residents of Alabama and they add a financial burden by using public services. However, one in every five jobs in Alabama is connected to agriculture. With the great exodus of farm workers after the bill’s passage, farmers found few unemployed Alabamians with the physical stamina and skill needed for the field work. One farmer claimed in a month’s time 75 Alabamians worked on her farm, but only 15 of them returned more than once and only 3 lasted the entire month.
Currently the Alabama legislature is reconsidering HB 56 to make some of its provisions more easily enforceable while retaining the toughest parts. However, since according to the U.S. Constitution immigration policy rightly belongs to the federal government, state legislatures might resist drafting their own immigration laws and instead pass resolutions instructing their congressional representatives to overhaul the entire U.S. immigration system.
The church’s teaching on immigration emphasizes respect for each person as a son and daughter of God. Persons have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families, especially when global economic forces deprive them of opportunities in their own homeland. While sovereign nations have a right to control their borders, they also have an obligation to the universal common good and therefore need just laws to accommodate migration. And, those laws must respect the human rights and human dignity even of undocumented migrants.
The nativist sentiment and xenophobia implicit in harsh immigration bills robs the nation and Alabama of the potential creativity and energy that immigrants bring. A study by the National Foundation reports that nearly half of America’s business start-ups have a founder who was foreign-born.
Add to the economic considerations, the social cohesion that many immigrants bring with their strong family life and their cultural values that defuse rampant materialism. Based on the church’s social teachings, rather than a melting pot America and Alabama could resemble a salad bursting with bright colors and crisp new ideas for forming community and living without fear.