Alabama gives birth to a new civil rights movement

With State Senator Russell Pearce’s dramatic recall in Arizona behind us, the nation’s immigration watchers turn their eyes to Alabama, now home to the nation’s fiercest immigration laws.

In Alabama, comparisons to the civil rights battles of the 1960s are hard to avoid. From local press to the New York Times and beyond, reporters and those they interview are connecting the dots, not generally in a way flattering to the state.

The New York Times was blistering in an editorial published Monday, all but calling Alabama and its lawmakers racist.

Alabama is far from alone in passing a law whose express aim is misery and panic. States are expanding their power to hasten racial exclusion and family disintegration, to make a particular ethnic group of poor people disappear. The new laws come cloaked in talk of law and order; the bigotry beneath them is never acknowledged.

But if there is any place where bigotry does not go unrecognized, it is Alabama.

“It is a fear of folks who are not like us,” said Judge U. W. Clemon, a former state senator and Alabama’s first black federal judge, now retired. “Although the Hispanic population of the state is less than 5 percent, the leaders of the state were hell-bent on removing as much of that 4 percent as possible. And I think they’ve been fairly successful in scaring them out of the state of Alabama.”

If it was just the big-city national media piling on, that would be one thing, bu the local press has more than held its own in this regard.

From al.com:

The nation’s harshest immigration law… is creating nothing short of a “humanitarian crisis” that mirrors the fear and racism felt during the Jim Crow era, opponents of the law said Thursday.

During an afternoon news conference about Alabama’s immigration law, lawyers, educators and children’s advocates said the effects of the law mirror the fear and racism felt during the Jim Crow era and have led to thousands of children being kept home from school, pregnant women being afraid to give birth in a hospital and families having their water supply cut off.

When Alabama’s law was enacted, the Southern Poverty Law Center established a hotline to hear people’s concerns and offer guidance. The SPLC, which has taken a leading role in fighting the law, received more than 2000 calls in the first week the line was open.

The Center for American Progress Monday released a number of lists attempting to quantify the effects of the law.

Among the Center’s findings are that if only 10,000 of Alabama’s 120,000 undocumented immigrants quit or were forced out of their jobs, it would cost the state $40 million in lost productivity. If the federal government was to deport all 120,000, the Center says it would cost taxpayers $2.8 billion.

The Center’s study concluded that undocumented immigrants paid $130 million in taxes last year.

It’s well documented that farmers and Alabama’s agriculture sector in general have struggled mightily since the law went into effect. As both undocumented and documented Alabamans of Hispanic descent or appearance have fled the state, leaving farmers with no one to harvest crops.

One tomato farmer told PBS he had lost $300,000 so far. He’s hired new people to do the work, but few of them have lasted, saying either that the work is too hard, or the pay is too low.

Where do all the immigrants fleeing places like Alabama and Arizona go? any head to the small towns of the Midwest. There is nothing new about this migration to the Midwest, apparently. As small towns in Kansas and Nebraska lose residents to more prosperous places, people of Hispanic descent move in, opening businesses and stabilizing local economies. Mostly, they are welcomed, reports The New York Times. In many cases, when Hispanic children grow up in these small towns, they end up staying to raise their own families instead of moving on in the grand American tradition.

From Monday’s New York Times:

For generations, the story of the small rural town of the Great Plains, including the dusty tabletop landscape of western Kansas, has been one of exodus — of businesses closing, classrooms shrinking and, year after year, communities withering as fewer people arrive than leave and as fewer are born than are buried. That flight continues, but another demographic trend has breathed new life into the region.

Hispanics are arriving in numbers large enough to offset or even exceed the decline in the white population in many places. In the process, these new residents are reopening shuttered storefronts with Mexican groceries, filling the schools with children whose first language is Spanish and, for now at least, extending the lives of communities that seemed to be staggering toward the grave.

That demographic shift, seen in the findings of the 2010 census, has not been uniformly welcomed in places where steadiness and tradition are seen as central charms of rural life. Some longtime residents of Ulysses, where the population of 6,161 is now about half Hispanic, grumble over the cultural differences and say they feel like strangers in their hometown. But the alternative, community leaders warn, is unacceptable.

There has long been a strong Hispanic presence throughout the region, which is rich with difficult work in meatpacking plants and on farms, feedlots and oil fields. But over the last decade, as their population in the rural Great Plains spiked by 54 percent — a figure comparable to gains in metro areas in the region — Hispanic residents have pushed from hubs like nearby Dodge City, Garden City and Liberal into ever smaller communities, buying property on the cheap, enticed, many say, by the opportunity to live quiet lives in communities more similar to those in which they were raised.

In the sparsely populated western half of Kansas, every county but one experienced a decline in the non-Hispanic white population, two-thirds of them by more than 10 percent.

At the same time, a vast majority experienced double-digit growth in Hispanic population, more than offsetting the declines in seven counties and many smaller cities and towns. Those places with the highest percentage of Hispanic residents tend to have the lowest average ages, the highest birth rates and the most stable school populations.

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About the Author

Scot Kersgaard

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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