For most undocumented immigrants today, Alabama is a place to flee from, not to flock to. Not so for a dozen immigrant youth and a small contingent of parents, all of them undocumented, who've arrived in Alabama to tell their stories at an action planned this afternoon in front of the capitol's statehouse in Montgomery.
"I want other immigrants to know we shouldn't be afraid. We shouldn't feel powerless." said Alma Diaz, a mother who immigrated to the country in 2002 from Mexico without papers. "We are here, doing the right thing for our children and their futures."
Diaz, who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, will be part of the first "coming out" action involving both undocumented youth and parents in which both will declare their status publicly. In so doing, they risk arrest, and deportation. Such actions are part of the arsenal of tools that undocumented youth have used in the past as a means of declaring their presence and advocating for bills like the DREAM Act.
But they haven't yet been used in Alabama, which is currently enforcing the nation's harshest anti-immigrant state law, HB 56. Alabama is the fifth state to enact provisions which require law enforcement officers to inquire about and investigate the immigration statuses of anyone they suspect may be undocumented--but it's the first state that's been allowed to enforce these provisions.
Several provisions of the law were blocked from going into effect while the courts wrangle over the constitutionality of them, and a federal appeals court granted an emergency stay on a provision that mandated that Alabama public schools track the immigration statuses of their students. Many provisions of the law have yet to go into effect, however. But that hasn't stopped the fear from settling in to the state's immigrant community.
Within days of the a federal judge's ruling on the law, families began fleeing the state or keeping their children home from school. Within weeks, farmers reported that their crops were rotting in the fields because their undocumented immigrant workforce had left the state, and U.S. citizen workers weren't up for the low-paying, back-breaking work.
The goal of today's action, Diaz said, is to embolden other undocumented immigrants to stand firm and fight back against laws like HB 56. Diaz said she believes participating in the action is how she can stop the spread of similar laws.
"We have 287(g), we have Secure Communities, we have all these anti-immigrant programs that are chasing us," Diaz said. "I came to Alabama to show people that I'm not afraid, and that if we come out of the shadows, if we stick together and organize, these laws are not going to happen."
The inclusion of parents in actions organized by undocumented youth is, according to Mohammad Abdollahi, with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, a new approach. It's also a pointed rejoinder to those, many of whom support the DREAM Act, who support advancing the rights of undocumented youth but are less sympathetic to their parents.
"We firmly believe our parents made the decision to come here to give us a better life," said Abdollahi, who is also undocumented. "We're very grateful for that. Our parents are here protecting us and we'd do anything to do the same thing for them."
Nico Gonzalez is also taking part in today's action. He's lived in the country since 1992, when he was five. Gonzalez said he's participating to give courage to the undocumented children he's met since arriving in Alabama.
"We asked this kid Julio, from Guatemala, 'What gives you hope?' and he said, 'Not waking up in jail.'" Gonzalez said. "He's 12 years old. It's just heartbreaking."
Gonzalez said many undocumented immigrants he's met in Alabama have lived in the state for just a handful of months since fleeing Georgia, which also passed its own harsh anti-immigrant state law. He wants the fight to end in Alabama.
"We're letting senators and legislators who are introducing this anti-immigrant legislation know that we've had enough."