On March 25, 1965, after the bloody and contentious marches from Selma to Montgomery, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol building and called Alabama "a shining moment in the conscience of man." Shining, because Alabama was both home to "the colossus of segregation" and home to the nonviolent struggle to dismantle it. "Alabama has tried to nurture and defend evil, but evil is choking to death in the dusty roads and streets of this state," he said.
King's words in front of the Alabama State Capitol building have been evoked anew, in recent months and weeks, after Alabama's legislature signed the nation's strictest anti-illegal immigrant bill into law. The law, known formally as the "Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act," or HB 56, is one of dozens mirroring Arizona's SB 1070, and has been referred to by many as "SB 1070 on steroids" for its enhanced and menacing effort to create a segregated underclass of undocumented immigrants in Alabama.
Amongst other provisions, the original bill (which, like Arizona's SB 1070, is being challenged in the federal court system, for its potential civil rights breaches and its violation of the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution) instructs local law enforcement officials to stop anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally, makes it a crime for citizens to knowingly transport an undocumented person -- to church or a hospital or anywhere else --, prohibits "an alien unlawfully present in the United States from receiving any state or local public benefits, prohibits a person not lawfully present from being eligible on the basis of residence for education benefits..."
The list of things undocumented immigrants would be prohibited from doing, as well as the list of ways U.S. citizens would be prohibited from interacting with undocumented immigrants, goes on for quite awhile. It's worth reading for yourself, at least the first few pages of the bill, to understand the length and depths to which Alabamian legislators tried, as the New York Times asserted, to turn the state "into the most hostile territory for illegal immigrants."
In particular, HB 56 has drawn vehement criticism for the provision requiring public schools to check students' birth certificates and immigration status before allowing students to enroll in public school. Such provisions are causing many to make comparisons between Jim Crow laws and anti-illegal immigrant measures like HB 56, referring to the latter as Juan Crow laws.
If we turn to a simple definition of the word segregation, such as that provided by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary -- "the separation or isolation of a race, class or ethnic group by barriers to social intercourse, by separate educational facilities, or other discriminatory means" -- it is difficult not to see how HB 56 is segregationist. As the New York Times said, the law is perpetuating a permanent underclass, making undocumented immigrants even more "isolated, unemployable, poor, defenseless and uneducated."
There is, of course, a justification for the bill. In the legislators' own words, "The State of Alabama finds that illegal immigration is causing economic hardship and lawlessness in this state and that illegal immigration is encouraged when public agencies within this state provide public benefits without verifying immigration status."
There is a perception among those who support such laws that illegal immigrants are draining tax-payer funded institutions at the expense of U.S. citizens. The argument goes: illegal immigrants are making classrooms overcrowded, putting a strain on already over-burdened public clinics and hospitals, and, as Steven Camarota, of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, has argued, a fiscal net loss to the U.S. government, the largest costs incurred from Medicaid, treatment for the uninsured, food assistance programs, and prison, court and school systems. The Alabama bill, like all SB 1070 copycat laws, is rooted in this sort of logic. Supporters of such laws argue that they are not segregationist. They are fair and protective.
To fully understand the genesis of Alabama's HB 56, it is worth briefly tracing its origins back to the "The Mother Law" of anti-illegal immigrant bills, Arizona's SB 1070. Signed into law by Arizona's governor, Jan Brewer, on April 23, 2010, Arizona's SB 1070 was, at the time, the nation's strictest immigration law. In a strategy of "attrition by enforcement," the most controversial measures of SB 1070 granted local police officers the right to stop anyone they suspected of being in Arizona illegally, and made it a crime for citizens to knowingly transport or shelter undocumented immigrants in any capacity.
The passing of SB 1070 immediately grabbed national attention. Overnight, people across the country, on all sides of the debate, were stirred up and weighing in, arguing over the new law. Detractors called the law racist and a serious violation of basic civil rights, while those in favor, like Kris Kobach, former Attorney General Ashcroft's chief advisor and secretary of state of Kansas, said the law was "a measured, reasonable step" in the effort to secure the border, "giving Arizona police officers another tool when [coming] into contact with illegal aliens during their normal law enforcement
Upon signing the bill into law, Governor Jan Brewer voiced her support of the measure. "I believe Arizona, like America, is governed by laws. Good laws... well-intentioned laws... laws that confer respect and that demand respect in return," she said.
Meanwhile, critics of SB 1070 said the law would enable rampant racial profiling and ultimately violated the equal protections clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Many such critics, like Cardinal Roger Mahoney, made comparisons to Jim Crow, and to German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques "whereby people were required to turn one another in to the authorities on any suspicion of documentation." A large group of faith leaders, across theological and denominational lines, came together to condemn SB 1070 and to appeal for humane and comprehensive immigration reform instead of racist and ill-conceived laws.
Jim Wallis, one of the most strident evangelical voices in favor of immigration reform, called the new law "a social and racial sin." Not only was it "mean-spirited" and "crossed many moral and legal laws," Wallis wrote in his God's Politics blog, but furthermore, it went against his and others' "Christian conscience."
The law, Wallis wrote, "should be denounced as [a sin] by people of faith and conscience across the nation. This is not just about Arizona, but about all of us, and about what kind of country we want to be. It's time to stand up to this new strategy of 'deportation by attrition.' It is a policy of deliberate political cruelty." Wallis stressed how SB 1070 made it "illegal to love your neighbor in Arizona. . . . Jesus . . . instructed his disciples to 'welcome the stranger,' and said that whatever we do to 'the least of these, who are members of my family' we do to him. I think that means that to obey Jesus and his gospel will mean to disobey SB 1070."
Ultimately, the federal government filed a lawsuit against Arizona, claiming SB 1070 violated the "preeminent authority" concerning matters of immigration. As Joyce Vance, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama would later say, explaining the federal government's right to control all matters of immigration, "To put it in terms we relate to... you can only have one quarterback in a football game. In immigration, the federal government is the quarterback."
As a result of the lawsuit against Arizona, many of the most controversial provisions of SB 1070 were blocked by federal judge Susan Bolton. Bolton did not cite racism per se. Nor did she cite the equal protections clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Rather, in her ruling she stated, "the mandatory requirement that Arizona law enforcement officials and agencies check the immigration status of any person arrested," would both "burden legally-present aliens" as well as "divert federal resources from the federal government's other responsibilities and priorities," and unfairly target lawfully present immigrants with "the possibility of intrusive police practices that might affect international relations and generate disloyalty."
But still, even with the key provisions blocked, in no way did Arizona's SB 1070 go gently into the night, not only because Bolton's ruling is being appealed, but more importantly because SB 1070 served as the spark that ignited a bonfire, so to speak, of Arizona copycat bills. Within a year, in more than a dozen states, bills mimicking SB 1070 were introduced, and many such bills added even more draconian measures, banning sanctuary city-policies outright, barring undocumented students from in-state tuition at state colleges, allowing local law enforcement officials to confiscate the property of undocumented immigrants, forcing parents to show proof of legal residence to register their children in schools. And so forth.
Before such copycat bills, the state of Arizona was singled out as America's racist backwater. As the Reverend Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said when SB 1070 was signed into law, "Today, Arizona stands as the state with the most xenophobic and nativist laws in the country."
However, the difference between Arizona and most of the other states that have been proposing similar and more severe legislation is that, unlike Alabama, Arizona has been deeply affected by the chaos of the U.S.-Mexican border. Hundreds of migrants die in the harsh Arizona desert trying to enter the country illegally. Ranchers' land is damaged by rampant illegal activity, both human and drug smuggling operations. Arizona hospitals, drained of funds, due to caring for so many sick migrants rescued in the desert, are threatening to close their doors. Citizens must endure the constant presence of Border Patrol operations (walls, highway checkpoints, Blackhawks, etc.).
If any state had an excuse for such anti-illegal immigration legislation, one might argue, it would be Arizona. As the Arizona Republic opined, SB 1070 was "ugly and indefensible," but "unlike other states, Arizona has an illegal-immigration superhighway running north from the border into our biggest metropolitan areas... Feeling cornered and anxious, Arizona lashed out with a nasty immigration bill. . . . But those in other states who defame Arizona need to look in the mirror. This is your problem, too. This is America's problem. ... It is a fantasy to believe that Arizona is an island, a racist backwater isolated from the other 49. We are you. We are what happens when the brunt of a national problem is [borne] by one state. Rather than make Arizona the scapegoat, we can all make it the catalyst to finally fix our national immigration system."
Many opponents of measures like SB 1070 or HB 56 would say just that: there is a lot of scapegoating going on, and the real problem lies with the U.S.'s shamefully outmoded immigration system. During the height of the SB 1070 controversy, President Obama delivered a speech at American University's School of International Service calling for bipartisan cooperation in the effort to overhaul what he called America's "fundamentally broken" immigration system, admitting that the current system reflects "years of patchwork fixes and ill-conceived revisions," which have led to paralyzing "backlogs and bureaucracy."
Obama blamed the "creakiness" of the system on a combination of nasty political posturing, intransigent partisanship, and a certain moral laziness of everyone: on the part of government, on the part of businesses, and on the part of individuals. Immigration reform, he said, was "not only a political issue, not just an economic issue, but a moral imperative as well."
Unfortunately, with current economic stagnation and high unemployment, immigration reform has not been a priority. Many say fixing the economy must come first. But, when looked at holistically, the issue of immigration is about the economy. The economic upheaval in the United States points to certain core systemic flaws in the ways we (as a nation and a global community) have chosen to conduct trade, seek out labor, cut costs, build businesses, outsource jobs, and rely on cheap products manufactured in ethically dubious assembly plants.
Many of these practices have influenced migration patterns, creating "push" and "pull" forces that span international boundaries, contributing to "shadow populations," such as illegal immigrant communities throughout the U.S. This is why immigration reform must also be a priority, because it is deeply connected to the work of trying to imagine a healthier global economy and a more harmonious and just human community.
In the same speech in Montgomery, King called Jim Crow "the psychological bird" of the "poor white man." Segregation, he said, was a strategy used by the Southern aristocracy to keep the southern masses divided and impoverished. "When the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society of justice," he said that Jim Crow was engineered to keep the rich and powerful at the top of the pecking order by imparting a sense of false superiority to the poor white man.
King said, "The southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than a black man. And he ate Jim Crow."
In the wake of laws like Alabama's HB 56, many have been drawing parallels between Jim Crow laws and what they call "Juan Crow" laws. The two -- Jim Crow and Juan Crow -- may not be exactly the same thing. They have very different histories, different contexts. But many are saying that the spate of anti-illegal immigrant bills over the past eighteen months is part of a similar strategy of division and impoverishment, a way of keeping people disunified and complacent, and of pointing the blame for current social ills at the wrong groups (illegal immigrants).
This impoverishment is not only limited to those immigrants targeted by such laws. The impoverishment extends to society as a whole. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, pointing to the way in which such laws morally impoverish everyone involved, the oppressed and the oppressors.
For this reason, many religious and interfaith groups across the country have been protesting these "Juan Crow" measures, citing the many commands in the Hebrew Bible and Christian scriptures to love those who are most vulnerable, such as widows, orphans, and aliens. Groups like Vamos Together, a Montgomery based civil rights and social justice organization rooted in the teachings of King, believe HB 56, like SB 1070, goes against the Christian injunction "to love neighbor as self."
On its website Vamos Together lists "101 reasons to repeal HB 56," amongst those reasons: "Modern day Good Samaritans will be outlawed; the law violates the Bible: Exodus 22:21, 'You shall not oppress a foreigner'; it reeks of nativism and such is not a Christian option; and the law contradicts the essential tenets of the Christian faith." This imperative to act with loving kindness toward the most vulnerable is also prominent in Muslim scriptures and commentary, in Buddhist texts, in much humanist philosophy, and in the majority of many of the world's other prominent religious traditions.
"Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality," King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, begging the questions: Are laws like SB 1070 and HB 56 distorting the soul of America? Are they psychological birds, distracting us from the real problems at hand?