Friday, March 9, 2012

Fight for Human Rights in Alabama Recalls Civil Rights Movement 50 Years Ago

WikiMediaCommons, Abernathy Family Photos
by S. Amanda Shelton

     On New Year's Eve, 2011, I walked around downtown Montgomery, Alabama. The tranquil streets in this city of over 200,000 were so quiet that I saw more police officers than residents, a somewhat disquieting fact given the subject of my visit—the state’s often troubled history of public oppression of minorities.
     This history of struggle with racism and acceptance has come back into sharp focus in the last year; in June, Governor Robert Bentley signed into law HB 56, the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, which the ACLU called the “harshest immigration law in the country.”
Among other things, the bill as passed required public schools to check the immigration status of students, voided certain contracts between individuals and undocumented immigrants, prohibited undocumented immigrants from working or seeking work, and required law enforcement to check the immigration status of individuals if they had a“reasonable suspicion” that their presence might be unlawful. Rights groups have challenged the law in federal court, and parts of the law have since been temporarily blocked, pending a final ruling. This kind of measure indicates that the court believes that the law’s challengers are likely to win at least partial victory.
S. Amanda Shelton

     In granting a request for a preliminary injunction for one of the provisions – to prevent undocumented immigrant mobile home owners from paying their annual registration fee -- U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson wrote that HB 56’s departure from usual state practice in regards to treatment of mixed status families and children “suggests strongly” that its treatment was “driven by animus against Latinos in general and thus that the statute was discriminatorily based” (emphasis added). Judge Thompson cited the words of Alabama state legislators, noting that legislators often conflated the terms illegal immigrant and Hispanic and used stereotypes for the Latino community in their arguments leading up to passage of the bill.
     This smaller piece of state-level discrimination has both national and even international dimensions. In addition to the American constitutional concerns being litigated in federal court, HB 56 also runs afoul of several of the most basic protections of international human rights law.
     After certain provisions went into effect last fall, reports showed that many children were pulled out of school because of fear, a serious concern given that a child’s fundamental right to primary education is recognized under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (which the U.S. has signed but not ratified). In Article 28, the Convention specifically states that the right to education should be achieved, on the “basis of equal opportunity,” and requires states to “Make primary education compulsory and available free to all” and to “Take measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and the reduction of drop-out rates.”
     Separate from international law, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled itself that children of illegal aliens have the right to a public education in U.S. schools in Plyler v. Doe.
    A provision in the bill prohibiting undocumented individuals from entering into a contract with the state has particularly troubling human rights implications. Families feared they would not be able to keep running water in their homes because they could not show proper documentation—such a denial of access to clean water is both a serious health issue and an out-right embarrassment in the wealthiest country in the world. The right to water has been recognized under international law as implied by Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in itsadequate standard of living guarantee, noted by the Human Rights Council in 2010.   
Moreover, the mobile home registration issue, which could have effectively forced families out of their homes, is directly in conflict with the right to housing under article 25 of the UDHR and article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). (The United States signed the ICESCR in 1979 but has not ratified it, consistent with its emphasis on civil and political human rights and reluctance to recognize economic, social, and cultural rights.)
     And more broadly, with the law’s clear bulls-eye on the Latino community, all of these provisions call into play the UDHR’s (and ICCPR Art. 26) basic promise that human rights will be recognized without discrimination based on national origin or language.
But these are simply the intended consequences. As Chief sponsor Alabama state legislator Micky Hammon made clear, “This [bill] attacks every aspect of an illegal immigrant's life. They will not stay in Alabama.... [T]his bill is designed to make it difficult for them to live here so they will deport themselves.”2
     Other consequences are less forthright.
     Sam Brooke, Staff Attorney for the Immigrant Justice Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), noted that another concern of such legislation is that the community could become afraid to seek the help of law enforcement when criminal activity occurs—and thus become an easier target of wrongdoers who know their activities will go unreported. As such, the Latino community effectively would not enjoy equal protection of the laws guaranteed to all persons by the fourteenth amendment of the Constitution, article seven of the UDHR, and Article 28 of the ICCPR. Brooke cited a recent murder in Foley, AL that involved a series of home invasions where the targets were Latino.
     In addition to the new measures being instituted in government offices and in law enforcement, the law has also had a marked impact on day-to-day interactions between private individuals. In this regard, Brooke says that HB 56 has created suspicion between Hispanic and non-Hispanic residents of Alabama—the law’s provisions have “empowered private individuals to be vigilantes, to be the checkers of immigration status.” One recurring concern in calls made to an SPLC hotline has been the contracts provision of the law, which has many concerned about whether their housing agreements will be honored. The hotline has received over 5,200 calls so far.
     But perhaps most stirring against the backdrop of Alabama’s capital city are the painful parallels that some have seen in the motivations behind these measures directed at the Latino community and some of the historic struggles of the African-American community. Retired federal judge U.W. Clemon (nominated by President Jimmy Carter as the nation’s first African-American federal judge in 1980), went so far as to say that after HB 56, “the Hispanic man is the new Negro.” Legislators’ statements from the state house recall old prejudices in a city riddled with reminders of hard-won battles in the fight for rights.
It is against this backdrop that lawmakers returned to Montgomery for regular session on February 7. As session gets into full swing, now is the time for Alabama’s legislative branch to address the human rights concerns of the community before the judiciary breaks HB 56 apart piece by piece—until only discrimination remains, laid bare.

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