Monday, March 31, 2014

How Alabama taught me that immigration is a civil rights issue

This post is re-produced with permission from Sarah Stuteville (one of the producers of Barzan, which recently completed touring the Southern Circuit). It originally appeared in the Seattle Globalist.

Living in the Pacific Northwest, arguably the political and cultural opposite of the Deep South, it's easy to think in stereotypes. Until recently, my knowledge of the region was limited to a short list that read something like: powerful hospitality, complicated history, good food, bad politics.

I spent the past couple weeks traveling to small towns throughout the South screening a documentary I had worked on. It played in museums, community centers and tiny rural theaters through a program called the Southern Circuit.

My film (titled “Barzan”) is largely about immigration issues, and I was curious, even a little nervous, about how the film might be received.

I was particularly anxious about Alabama. In 2011 , the state passed one of the country’s harshest immigration laws, House Bill 56 .

This law, among other things, banned landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants, required schools to check the status of students and police to arrest suspected immigration violators. Much of the bill has since been dismantled in the courts, but I wondered what sort of attitudes had set the stage for the bill’s passing in the first place.

The night of our Alabama screening, the audience was small — 10 people clustered in back of the theater. The house lights came up to polite applause, but the topic hit home and had folks lingering over a well-stocked snack table long after the credits rolled.

“Immigration has been used to pull people further into the conservative movement here,” said Matthew Glover, 29, who serves on the Good Hope, Ala., City Council when he's not working as an auto-parts delivery-truck driver. “They really beat into your mind that (immigrants) are stealing from you ... that they're taking money out of your pockets.”

Glover said that, ironically, it was negative economic impact that ultimately turned people in his town against HB 56. Businesses, especially Alabama's chicken farms, lost profits when many of their undocumented workers disappeared, seemingly overnight.

For that night's moviegoing crowd, immigration issues were inextricably linked to economic challenges and many felt that immigration had been used as a political tool to help explain much of the state’s struggle with poverty and unemployment.

An hour south, in Birmingham, home to some of the most significant civil-rights protests of the 1960s, it is the connection between immigration issues and civil rights that motivates a new generation of activists.

“People felt that we had gotten past the '60s,” said the Rev. Angie Wright describing the passage of HB 56, “and then we were being seen again as that place of hate.”

Wright was across the street from the site of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing with other immigration activists at Kelly Ingram Park — a memorial to the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s. The group was there to call for national, comprehensive immigration reform. Speakers called for a country that “has no second-class citizens” and “welcomes all equally” in a city that, only a generation ago, had some of the strongest segregation laws in the nation. The connection between the civil-rights movement and the push for immigration reform felt very real. The most real, perhaps, to immigrants like Maricela Garciá, who came to Alabama from Oaxaca, Mexico, 14 years ago in search of a better life.

Garciá, who has been working to organize her community to fight for immigrant rights ever since the passage of HB 56, says the lessons of the civil-rights movement inform her work.

“There is strength when you get together,” she said, adding that she believes that the darkest of circumstances often offer the greatest opportunity for change.

“HB 56 was bad for us, it's true,” she said after placing a yellow daisy at a memorial for the victims of the 1963 church bombing, “but it's good for us, too, because now there are many groups organizing, and there's power in this community.”

Much more power, and complexity, than this Seattleite could have possibly imagined just a few weeks ago.

Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist,, a blog covering Seattle's international connections. Sarah Stuteville: Twitter: @SeaStute