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In schools, towns and farms, battle heats up over Alabama's tough immigration law

By Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Mon October 17, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Alabama immigration law sparks drop in Latino students, contractors, farmhands
  • Schools see many students return after bilingual YouTube videos reassured parents
  • Work stoppage timed to Mexican holiday Dia de la Raza closed hundreds of businesses
  • Birmingham's first female Hispanic firefighter working to overturn the law in court

Editor's note: This story was reported before Friday's appeals court ruling blocking enforcement of parts of Alabama's controversial immigration law.

Birmingham, Alabama (CNN) -- Theresa De Leon finally broke down over breakfast at a diner behind City Hall.

The city's first female Hispanic firefighter, she's a second-generation American whose grandmother migrated from Mexico to pick potatoes and strawberries. She's terrified Alabama's new immigration law, which proponents boast is the strictest in the land, could destroy Latino families throughout the Heart of Dixie.

Since October 3, when a federal judge upheld several key provisions of the law, she has seen friends disappear, Latino businesses founder and families hunker down, afraid to send their kids to school or go to the grocery store in a state where the law now targets them. She has held back tears because she needs to be "that strong one" and because now is a time to fight, she says, not mourn.

"I haven't been able to really cry," she said, apologizing for her tears. "You can't leave people hanging. Right now's not the time to take a breather, not when people need you."

De Leon, 38, has been active in Birmingham's Latino community since moving to the city in 2005. She has worked for a local radio station, the mayor's Division of Youth Services, the City Council's office, even helped the city's homicide detectives with translations. But over the last two weeks, her life outside the fire department has been consumed with House Bill 56.

Theresa De Leon helped organize a work stoppage on Dia de la Raza, a Mexican holiday coinciding with Columbus Day.
Theresa De Leon helped organize a work stoppage on Dia de la Raza, a Mexican holiday coinciding with Columbus Day.

The tears are a stark departure from her tomboy demeanor. Even in a black dress, suede boots and hoop earrings, a dinged-up digital watch with a nylon web band stands out on her wrist. Her makeup and fruitless attempts to avoid cursing during an interview can't hide what her father taught her and her three sisters: to be tough, work construction and play tackle football.

She blotted her eyes with a napkin and sighed.

"It's almost like a tornado has come through and wiped everybody out," she said.

It's a jarring analogy after one of the deadliest storms in history left hundreds dead across the state just a few months ago, but De Leon meant no disrespect.

It's just that life of late has been a whirlwind. A mother of two daughters, 15 and 10, De Leon knows two families who just up and left -- one for South Carolina, one without saying goodbye. Another family with a 16-year-old daughter, an American citizen on her school's flag corps and honor roll, will have to move soon, De Leon said.

"Here we go again with the negative stigma of Alabama. Do we ever get out of it?" she asked, wondering why the Trail of Tears of the 1800s and the Jim Crow laws of the past century, which she sees as other attempts to displace or disrupt entire peoples, didn't teach the state a lesson.

A nation divided

Despite the volume with which the law's opponents are decrying it, there are plenty who support the measure. Nearly a quarter of Alabama's House of Representatives sponsored the bill; it passed by a margin of nearly 3-1.

Look no further than readers' comments on any local newspaper website to see how bitterly divided the state is over its Latino population. Scroll down to the bottom of this story and you'll likely see how the issue pits the nation against itself.

Immigration has been a contentious issue in political races from the local level up to next year's presidential contest. Polls across the nation in the last year speak to the distaste many have for granting certain rights to immigrants:

--Sixty-eight percent oppose tuition breaks for immigrants attending state colleges (CBS News)

--35% say revise the 14th Amendment to keep children of illegal immigrants from becoming citizens (Time)

--55% oppose a bill that would give some immigrants a path to legal status (USA Today/Gallup)

--Almost 70% prefer stricter enforcement of immigration laws over efforts to integrate illegal immigrants into society (Quinnipiac University)

Jose Antonio Castro is a radio personality at La Jefa, a Pelham station that helped publicize the protest.
Jose Antonio Castro is a radio personality at La Jefa, a Pelham station that helped publicize the protest.

Alabama's law forbids its courts from enforcing a "contract between a party and an alien unlawfully present in the United States" and bans illegal immigrants from conducting business transactions with the state. That includes license plates and driver's licenses, but not marriage licenses.

Two provisions have garnered the most outcries. One is that police, whether during an arrest or routine traffic stop, can check the immigration status of anyone "where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States." The second is that public school officials are now required to check the immigration status of new students and compile the data annually for the state school board to send to the Legislature.

On Friday, the U.S.11th Circuit Court of Appeals blocked enforcement of parts of the law, including the public school provision and a requirement to carry an alien registration card. The court ruling allows Alabama to enforce other provisions, including the police checks.

The public school provision sparked a sudden drop in many classroom rolls and prompted the Alabama Department of Education to issue YouTube statements, in English and Spanish, assuring parents that the state's public schools "welcome all children" and that no one would be turned away based on their citizenship.

The message seems to have gotten through. In Marshall, Franklin and DeKalb -- counties with heavy Latino populations -- superintendents report that class attendance has picked back up in recent days.

"After they figured out we're not the Gestapo, a lot of kids are back," said Superintendent Charles Warren of DeKalb County, where the official tally is now 31 withdrawals out of an estimated 1,500 Hispanic students.

Still, the provision has some educators bitter over the idea of "immigration agent" being added to their already daunting list of duties. One Birmingham principal vowed to not "ask for papers other than what I need for registration." In Marshall County, where at least 25 of the system's 1,000 Hispanic students haven't returned to school, Superintendent Tim Nabors hopes the students who left aren't counted as dropouts -- which could affect his school system's funding.

Labor not rebounding

Though U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn struck down the provision in HB56 prohibiting illegal immigrants to "knowingly apply for work, solicit work in a public or private place, or perform work as an employee or independent contractor in this state," the labor industry isn't bouncing back as fast as the schools.

Several contractors complained there is a dearth of painters, carpenters and roofers, and few non-immigrants are stepping up to fill the void. Those who are, contractors say, often don't have the experience and take twice or three times as long to do a job.

That sentiment is echoed on many of the state's farms.

Ellen Jenkins, 47, was outside a packinghouse selling tomatoes to a customer who drove up Chandler Mountain for a box. It was a drizzly Tuesday, so no one was picking tomatoes and peppers on her farm. The next day, she said, was supposed to be nice, but she was concerned a threatened work stoppage could make life more difficult.

Many of the workers at Ellen Jenkins\' farm on Chandler Mountain fled the state after the signing of the new law.
Many of the workers at Ellen Jenkins' farm on Chandler Mountain fled the state after the signing of the new law.

The second-generation farmer has had a rough time of things since her husband's health problems worsened four years ago. Ronnie Jenkins died in 2009, and his widow and three children have struggled to keep up production on the 50 acres where she proudly grows row after row of tomatoes and peppers, including "the hottest jalapenos and the longest cayennes," she said.

"I wanted to quit when (Ronnie) was on dialysis, and he said, 'You can't quit. You don't know nothing else,' " she said.

Last year, she grew 400,000 plants from seed. She had about 30 workers using five trucks to bring boxes of produce down the dirt path from her rows of crops. Lately, she's been lucky to find 10 workers and two trucks. The law hasn't just affected illegal immigrants, she said.

"A lot of the ones that is legal, they're saying, 'If you don't want me here no more, fine,' " Jenkins explained. "You think I wouldn't run, too?"

Down the road at nearby packinghouses, farmers grumbled that the few people replacing missing Latinos can't keep pace with skilled Latino workhands, who can pick a dozen or more types of tomatoes at once and pack them into boxes as they go. At peak picking times, they work 28 days straight up to 14 hours a day, and they don't whine a peep, their former bosses said.

At $2 a box, the best pickers can make a good living off a harvest. The various stand-ins taking the Latinos' place will need ample training and experience to match their proficiency, several farmers said.

If something doesn't change by February, when many farmers order their tomato plants, they'll be forced to cut production by 33% to 75%, depending who you talk to.

Ripple effect

Love it or hate it, the brown flight has been felt in pockets all across the northern part of the state, whether it manifests itself in lighter downtown traffic, a drop in school attendance or vanishing labor.

At Birmingham's Glen Iris Elementary School, where a quarter of the students are Hispanic, attendance for the evening English as a second language classes, which many of the kids' parents attend, has dropped by 50%, maybe more, said program aide Marixa Gillie. In nearby Pelham, the Spanish-language newspaper Paisano gave up its office digs for the publisher's home basement after ad revenue dried up.

The Catholic Church's social outreach ministry has been receiving calls for legal advice. Many illegal immigrants want to know how to assign guardianship of their legal children to friends or neighbors in the event they are deported, said Father Tom Ackerman, vicar for Hispanic ministries at the Birmingham diocese. He hasn't heard any reports of drops in Spanish Mass attendance.

"In times of trouble, like all of us, they turn to God," Ackerman said.

Rodrigo Guajardo is the editor of the Paisano newspaper, which lost advertising in the wake of the new law.
Rodrigo Guajardo is the editor of the Paisano newspaper, which lost advertising in the wake of the new law.

In an effort to prove what Alabama might be missing without them, Latinos organized a work stoppage on Dia de la Raza, Spanish for "Day of the Race" and a Mexican holiday coinciding with Columbus Day. It was met with spotty response, but hundreds of businesses closed -- about 30 in Albertville alone, leaving downtown asleep but for a beauty shop Wednesday. Latinos across the state are also being urged to patronize only businesses friendly to their cause until next week.

Wayne Farms shut down its poultry facility in Albertville, 70 miles northeast of Birmingham, "to get in front of this in case it was an issue," said spokesman Frank Singleton. Three of the company's Decatur plants off to the northwest stayed open, and only 50 or so absences were reported. Tyson, with a third of its 1,700 Alabama workers Hispanic, left its Albertville and nearby Blountville plants open, but they were "scheduled to have limited production because of a potential shortage of workers," according to a statement that said the company was "not encouraging our workers to participate in a protest."

Latina firefighter De Leon, who helped organize the protest in her capacity as publicist for the La Jefa radio show out of Pelham, said the day before Dia de le Raza that she hoped it would have some influence over the process of appealing the court ruling.

Asked why she spreads herself so thin advocating and serving in a state where she could have her immigration status questioned if police pulled her over, she teared up again.

When she was a kid growing up in Texas, she said, her dad always did what he could to help others in their San Antonio neighborhood. A contractor, he'd dole out jobs, rides, even change for a meal. De Leon remembers waking up to families sleeping in her den.

"He never met a stranger. He exposed us to so much," she said. "We didn't have much, but he'd still give that to them."

Before Tuesday's Birmingham City Council meeting, a steady stream of well-wishers flowed by De Leon as she stood outside the mayor's office, waiting to introduce the mayor to visitors. City employees, council members and a lobbyist offered their support and asked what they could do to help.

One of De Leon's mentors, Fire Chief Ivor Brooks, a rock of a man with a crushing handshake, gave her a hug. State Sen. Linda Coleman took her hand and in a soft, motherly voice, said, "Not everyone is on the other side, you know?"

Economic influence vs. influence of public opinion

It remains to be calculated whether the Dia de la Raza protest succeeded at convincing folks that Alabama's Latinos wield the economic might needed to nudge public policy and opinion.

States' rank in terms of Hispanic buying power among legal citizens, in billions of dollars
1. California -- 265.2
2. Texas -- 176.3
3. Florida -- 107
4. New York -- 81.3
5. Illinois -- 43.6
6. New Jersey -- 39. 3
7. Arizona -- 33.9
8. Colorado -- 21.9
9. New Mexico -- 20
10. Georgia -- 17
32. Alabama -- 3.7

Source: The University of Georgia's Terry College of Business Selig Center for Economic Growth

It's impossible to say what a mass exodus of Latinos might cost Alabama -- immigrant advocates predict billions; supporters of the new law foresee a short-lived blip -- but there's no questioning that Latinos have increasingly called Alabama their sweet home during the last decade.

By itself, the legal Hispanics' annual buying power has more than doubled since 2000 to $3.7 billion (of the state's $148 billion total), according to the University of Georgia's Selig Center, which based its figures on Census data.

One person who remains unconvinced by economic arguments is Albertville Mayor Lindsey Lyons. During his three years in office, he has made immigration reform his primary objective. He ran for City Council, he said, because he and other concerned citizens were tired of the hit and runs, uninsured drivers, DUIs, drug trafficking and gang activity that he says have accompanied immigrants, which compose more than a quarter of the city's 21,000 people.

He says friends have been shut out of the construction business because of competitors using illegal labor. Albertville police have uncovered immigrant-run brothels operating out of mobile home parks, some using underage girls, he says.

He sees Alabama's law as tantamount to the federal law already in place, but with teeth, and says the city has been preparing for this "day of reckoning." He is not swayed by Latinos' economic impact -- "you can beat that horse to death" -- and as for the Dia de la Raza work stoppage that hushed his downtown, he believes it's the wrong way to voice opposition.

Albertville Mayor Lindsey Lyons ran for office on a platform of immigration reform and says he supports the new law.
Albertville Mayor Lindsey Lyons ran for office on a platform of immigration reform and says he supports the new law.

"I think they're shooting themselves in the foot," he said.

Lyons is an Arby's franchise owner whose office d├ęcor includes Alabama Crimson Tide memorabilia, NASCAR models and a U.S. Border Patrol cap. He says he knows many Latinos -- here both legally and illegally -- and he understands that their absence will change the city's way of life. His own son, one of four children, came home after the federal judge's ruling and told him, "Dad, I believe I'm going to be losing one of my friends."

In part, Lyons and others resent the Latinos for not doing more to make themselves part of the community when their numbers began to swell about 20 years ago, he said.

"If they had, to some extent, reached out and tried to let the community know, 'Hey, we love America. We want to learn English, you know? We want to have insurance when we drive our cars. We want to make sure we don't affect your quality of life. What can we do to become assimilated to American ways?' But we never had any of that, OK? And if that was attempted at the time, who knows how things would've been today?"

Struggling to find help

Back on her Chandler Mountain tomato and pepper farm Wednesday, Jenkins was wishing the Latinos who she felt meshed well into her community would return to pick her vegetables.

A few workers had shown up on Dia de la Raza, none of them Hispanic, to chip in. The same number of skilled Hispanic workers, she said, could clear 3 acres in a day, but the five fellows in the field that day, which included a local newspaper reporter gathering details for a story, were green -- not used to the work, not conditioned for it -- and a good deal slower, Jenkins said.

She pointed out that the high Wednesday was 64 degrees, a far cry from the 100-plus temperatures that Alabama's summers can bring. Imagine if this was July, she said.

One of Jenkins' new farmhands, Jessie Lessley, 29, of Tarrant is an out-of-work commercial electrician helping to care for his unemployed mother, a schoolteacher, after his father's death in February. He heard about the job on the radio and needed money for bills and child support.

Brothers and new farmhands Jessie Lessley, left, and Jeb Lessley work on Ellen Jenkins\' tomato farm.
Brothers and new farmhands Jessie Lessley, left, and Jeb Lessley work on Ellen Jenkins' tomato farm.

"I'm grateful for it because prior to this I had nothing. This is better than nothing," he said.

His brother, Jeb, 30, also an electrician by trade, worked alongside him, stooping, standing, reaching, jerking stakes from the ground and clearing twine used to support the tomato plants.

"Everybody said this is a job Americans won't do. Well, there's a few of us who still will," Jeb Lessley said.

The Lessley brothers welcome the law, they say. The work is tough, but they wouldn't have it if HB56 hadn't opened the jobs for them.

"I know it's going to hurt some farmers, but I think Alabama can come out of this. I think we'll get acclimated to it," Jeb Lessley said.

Jenkins overheard the conversation and interrupted. She'd already made it clear to a reporter that she thinks the effects of HB56 -- on food prices, on the tax base, on many industries' labor pools -- will run deep.

"You think it's just affecting farmers?" she challenged.

"No ma'am, but I think people will work when welfare is cut back," he said. "Our system is set up to where it's easier to float by. ... I've got friends laid off about the same time I was laid off, and they won't take a low-paying job because they can make as much sitting on their butt drawing unemployment."

The tension lightened as Jenkins pulled from her cigarette and nodded.

"I mean, even a mother dog kicks a puppy off a teat at some point," Lessley added, earning laughs from Jenkins and his brother, Jessie.

Jerry Spencer has been helping local farms find workers to replace Latinos who fled the state.
Jerry Spencer has been helping local farms find workers to replace Latinos who fled the state.

Jenkins and other farmers are seeking help, but it's tough to find, good or bad. Jerry Spencer of Grow Alabama, a multifarm CSA, or community-supported agriculture program, has been diverting his resources to help at least five farms find workers. He's only heard this week from about 50 people looking for work. Jenkins alone could use three dozen.

She's not going to quit, though. It's her passion, but she worries that if the Latinos don't return to the fields, she'll have to look to a generation that wasn't taught the same values of hard work instilled in her -- and the Latinos. Tired of being stressed, she said she would put it in the hands of a higher power.

"I'm not going to worry about next year because something's got to give," she said. "You might be down and out, but God says he ain't going to put no more on you than you can bear. Maybe this is God's way of getting folks working again."

CNN's Brandon Ancil and Edythe McNamee produced the video and contributed to this report.

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