The Birmingham Area Consortium for Higher Education’s Public Forum on HB 56, held Thursday and Friday, Feb. 9 and 10, provided a look at some of the human effects of Alabama’s controversial immigration law.
The forum was held on the UAB and Samford University campuses, and panelists spoke on several subjects surrounding the law, including education, public health, civil rights and government operations.
“Make no mistake, these laws are designed to target one group of people,” said Heidi Beirich, director of research at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Beirich spoke during Thursday’s panel on civil and human rights concerns at UAB.
Professor David Smolin of Samford’s Cumberland School of Law told attendees HB56 pits the state against the federal government regarding which governing body is actually in charge of immigration issues.
According to Smolin, immigration is also an international relations question. “Generally speaking states are disabled from conducting foreign policy. That’s the job of the federal government,” he said.
HB 56 also brings up important civil rights issues, especially for a state like Alabama with such a dark history. “The goal of the law seems to be to segregate undocumented aliens in every relationship they have, not only with the State of Alabama but also with other people in the state of Alabama,” he said.
Friday, educators gathered to speak about the effect the law has had on school systems statewide. Principal William Lawrence from Baldwin County’s Foley Elementary School recalled how fears surrounding HB 56 caused parents to pull students out of school. As rumors spread about the school checking immigration status of students, Lawrence reached out to parents to try to squelch concerns.
Before the passage of HB56, Foley had been a community known to be Hispanic-friendly, and the elementary school had worked with families to help provide for their needs.
According to Lawrence, 58 children had been pulled out of the school by the Monday after the law’s passing. Ninety eight percent of Foley’s Hispanic students were born in the community, he said. “That hurt because we had been together for 15 years,” he told the audience.
Even though all but seven students have returned to Foley, fear still persists in the community. “I hold accountable the governor and the legislature for every tear that was shed that day and every fear have held since that day,” he said.
The law also puts a strain on public health. According to Carlos Torrez-Sanchez, international program manager for the Jefferson County Board of Public Health, having to ask patients for citizen documentation before treating them is disruptive to the health-care process. “When we care about protecting the health of people and making sure that we improve the health of those people, we cannot be distracted by elements that are divisive,” he said.
Asking patients to verify citizenship status also affects the non-Hispanic population. Torrez-Sanchez said people of other races sometimes get offended when asked for documentation, which puts a strain on interaction. “HB 56 is creating an unreasonable burden of work,” he said.
Edwina Taylor, executive director of Cahaba Valley Healthcare, said her organization has seen the effects in the numbers. Before the law was passed, about 80 percent of the people seen at the organization’s vision and dental screenings were Hispanic, according to Taylor. That number has since dropped to around 50 percent.
All public health programs aimed at Hispanics haven’t suffered under the law. Allison McGuire of UAB’s Division of Preventive Medicine said that enrollment in their Sowing The Seeds of Health program for Latinas hasn’t dipped because of strong ties to the community. However, the new requirements under the law makes things more complicated than they used to be.
Hispanics aren’t the only group of people fearful of what HB 56 means for the state. Many of the panelists also expressed fear. “For legislators to pass legislation that was born out of fear, out of bigotry, out of racism and out of hatred scares the heck out of me,” Michael Wilson from Glen Iris.
Mia Watkins is a contributing writer at Weld for Birmingham. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.