Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Immigration Will Just Not Go Away

During the Second World War artist Norman Rockwell took President Roosevelt's challaenge of Four Freedoms and did a painting of each one. Freedom from Fear is one of those freedoms. I wish that every Hispanic child in this country could feel the safety of these children and their parents that we see here.

As I left my health club this afternoon I saw a Hispanic mother and three small children walking to their car. I stopped the car, rolled down the window and said, “I want you to know that I am very angry about this immigration bill. I went to the meeting downtown yesterday and just wanted to say that I am glad you are here.” Great big tears formed at the corner of her eyes. She smiled got into her car and drove away. I moved toward home thinking about that woman and her family and the meeting I attended the day before in downtown Birmingham.

Eleven Congressmen from across the country came to Birmingham to listen to the stories that immigrants had to tell. I decided to take the long trip downtown and wondered who would show up. I was not disappointed. The room at City Hall was packed. As I walked in I saw an ancient Hispanic woman being helped up the steps by a family member. There were quite a few young people. There were a great many African Americans present. Hispanics also crowded into the room. There were a good number of white folk there, too. It was an American audience—all ages, all colors, some well heeled and some poor.

The visiting Congressmen sat in a semi-circle at the front. I was afraid maybe our out-of-state guests might talk to long. Not so. They were conscious that we were all there to hear stories from members of the Hispanic community. U.S. Representative Terri Sewell, a Birmingham Democrat was there along with the Mayor and Sheriff of the county. Mayor Bell said that our immigration bill smacked of Apartheid and Jim Crowism. Sheriff Hale talked about the difficulty of trying to enforce these new laws and reminded us that his staff is seriously understaffed and not equipped to enforce this anti-immigration bill. One speaker said, “We are a nation of laws but more a nation of people.” Another person reminded us that we are a nation of immigrants and most of us came from somewhere else. We were told that there are 11 million illegal immigrants in our country and that our immigration policy is seriously broken. All these comments set the stage for us to listen to those people who were called  “the witnesses.”

Those who spoke talked of the burden of Alabama’s anti-immigration law--the harshest in the nation .So we spent the rest of the hour listening to those whose lives had been crippled and burdened by HR56--Alabama's anti-immigration law.  As I listened to the stories of the witnesses I wished that those who had written that terrible document had been present in that room. Teachers spoke of student withdrawals and parents afraid to send their children to school. A high school student told of how she continually text her parents while she was at school.  She was afraid they might be incarcerated before she got home. Another spoke of how water and lights have been turned off because they did not have the proper documentation. One person reported that they had Hispanic friends who, after working long hours, were told they had no right to be paid because they were illegal.” Another person told us of all the rumors that are floating around the Hispanic community. These people are being shut out of basic services. They cannot get a driver’s license or a car tag without proper documentation. One woman spoke in Spanish through a translator. One lady told us that her home was destroyed during the tornado and when she bought a mobile home she could not get a license because of her status. One woman who taught Sunday school said that the Sunday after HB56 was passed not a single member of her class showed up. The theme that ran through the whole afternoon was fear. Fear of deportation. Fear of the break up of families where some are sent to Mexico and some are allowed to stay. Many families stay inside their houses afraid that they might be arrested. They just do not feel safe.

As I left the room I looked up at the words that were etched over the door. They read: “The people are the city.” There were no adjectives before the word, people. All the way home I kept hearing the ugly words illegal and deportation. It reminded me of another country and another terrible time. Do we really want this kind of an America? Everyone here should feel safe and never be afraid of who they are.

Everywhere I go these days I smile at the Hispanics. I want them to know that a great number of us in this state are glad they are here. I want them to know how much we, too, despise HR56 because it is antithetical to who we are and what we stand for. Maybe we need to do some witnessing of our own. Telling everyone we see that our task is to keep faith with that tiny wondrous word embedded in the heart of the Declaration of Independence. All. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (sic) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” So our task in this hard age is to continue to live up to the dream that set this nation on its good course. Maybe it is always two steps forward and one step backwards—but let us not give up the fight.

(You might want to read Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson's splendid article, Immigrants: Strangers In Our Midst.  It is  thought provoking. )

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