August 29, 2014

Bittersweet Home, Alabama

(Originally published at Zocalo Public Square)

I have to confess that when I first decided to walk across America to get to know my nation, I didn’t think Alabama would rank high on the list of most-illuminating states. I figured the state promised some regional charm, some southern hospitality, maybe some poignant tales of race relations and reconciliation with a difficult past. But who knew Alabama would beckon as a key crossroads for the various currents vying to define American identity and social cohesion?

As Washington increasingly cedes immigration law to the states, Alabama has displaced Arizona as the key cultural battleground on an issue that is ostensibly about work visas and regulations, but is really about national identity and membership in the national community.

Alabama, you may have heard, has passed the nation’s harshest law cracking down on illegal immigration. Undocumented workers here are afraid; many of them have pulled their kids from school and fled the jurisdiction. The state law is intended to make their lives here unsustainable, empowering schools and police to check everyone’s residence status at any time, and going so far as to invalidate the legality of any contract entered into by an undocumented immigrant. Courts have suspended some of the law’s provisions pending further review, but the core of the legislation is in effect. And some crops are rotting, as too many immigrants working the fields seem to have gotten the message they are no longer welcome.

I am a legal immigrant in this country, and next year I will become a U.S. citizen; hence my decision to take a celebratory stroll from New York to Los Angeles. I arrived in Alabama two weeks ago, and have been absorbing the maelstrom ever since, wrestling with conflicting emotions.

Last week I had dinner with a man I’ll call Rodrigo, who’s been living here since 1996. This is his home, the 33-year-old says, and he’s not leaving until they physically kick him out. And then he’ll come back. He walked across the desert once to get here, and he says he’s willing to do it again. Rodrigo’s friend, a woman I’ll call Ana, spent 16 years in California before she moved to Alabama two years ago. She is a victim of domestic violence who came here to get away from an ex-husband. The man had followed her to several cities on the West Coast. Two weeks ago, Ana packed a few suitcases and made preparations to leave on short notice if she must. She is living from one day to the next, but she’s also planning to stay for as long as she can.

They’re staying, they say in Spanish, because they have responsibilities here: “We can’t just walk out on our employers,” they explain, raising one of the oft-confusing contradictions surrounding illegal immigration. They broke the law to come, but someone is relying on their labor, and they are conscientious about their work. They asked me not to be specific about their jobs, for fear of being identified.

They are clear as to why they don’t want to go back to their native Mexico. “There are no rules there,” says Ana, “and you can’t live in a place where nobody obeys the law because then it’s like you have no rights. Everywhere you go, people want to get something out of you; you can’t drive a car without bribing someone, you can’t run a business without someone shaking you down.”

Again, the disconnect …

I could not help but point out the irony of someone who came here illegally complaining about the lack of law enforcement in the country she left. But Ana is unfazed. “I broke that one law, because I had no choice,” she says. “I could not get a visa, yet I knew that there were jobs available here. And ever since I came, I have abided by all other laws in the books. In California I even had a driver’s license and a Tax ID number. I filed taxes for years.” She wants me—someone who played by the rules in obtaining my legal residency—to think that the “original sin” of her life north of the Rio Grande, that failure to get a visa, ranks somewhere near jaywalking in the hierarchy of violations to the common good. Obviously, plenty of Alabamans feel differently, judging by the new law suggesting that these undocumented workers are Public Enemy 1, given the efforts prescribed to identify and uproot them.

At Ana’s mention of taxes, Rodrigo jumps in. “I pay taxes too,” he said. “I’ve paid them since day one, because no one would hire me without a social security number. Everyone here [at his place of employment, where six out of 10 people are here illegally] gets taxes taken out of their paychecks, and we don’t even get to file for a rebate at the end of the year.” He then fished a crumpled receipt from his pocket. “And look, every time I go to a store I pay sales tax.” Alabama, it should be noted, does not exempt food from sales taxes.

They were getting upset. I didn’t point out the fact that the social security numbers they use are fake, but I could see their point. They see themselves as pulling their own weight, not asking for any handouts. They do not see themselves as a drain on the system.

So I ask them if they are taking jobs away from American citizens. Ana responds with an anecdote. “My old roommate,” she says, “is a white American citizen. She didn’t work a single day we lived together. She was receiving unemployment, but when I told her there were jobs available at the chicken processing plant where I worked, she told me that she could make more by staying at home and collecting her welfare check.”

Rodrigo points out that there are jobs available now where he works, and that more are becoming available as immigrants leave the state. “Yet I don’t see anyone lining up to take them,” he says.

It’s hard not to respect the tenacity of people like Rodrigo and Ana. And I must also give them credit for their refusal to yield the moral high ground. They don’t think that what they are doing is wrong—all they want is to live and work in a place where their efforts pay off. It’s an American aspiration, even if they lack the right papers to be a part of the American community.

As is the case with similar state measures, who knows where the law will settle once the U.S. Supreme Court examines the constitutionality of the patchwork of state immigration laws coming into being. In Alabama, religious organizations and immigrant aid groups succeeded in delaying the provisions that would criminalize the “transport” or “harboring” of illegal immigrants. The particularly creative Alabama provision was the one making any contracts with illegal immigrants void and null. In Anniston, Alabama, I spoke with a personal injury lawyer who pointed out that people who are injured at work would have no recourse to worker’s compensation under the new law, because they could never be recognized as employees—their contract with their employer would be void.

But again, this law isn’t really about whom you need to show your papers to where. It’s not even about who is needed to pick the crops come harvest season. The law is about Americans—including the well-intentioned, the fearful, the bigoted, the economically anxious, the law-abiding rule-of-law types—wrestling with their culture and identity. Who belongs in our society, and what must we all share to preserve our cohesion?

It is too compelling a moment and story to shrug off and keep walking. I am interested in seeing how this law—and its enforcement—affect life in Alabama, not only for immigrants, but for the people who employ them and benefit from their services. I am interested in seeing how the debate about immigration evolves in this state and informs the national conversation. That is one of the reasons why I have decided to stay here through Thanksgiving, and to get a couple of jobs during the interim. I want to become a part of the community, and hear the stories of people on both sides of the debate.

The purpose of my cross-country walk, after all, is to discover the meaning of being an American, and for now I sense Alabama is a key part of the puzzle.

Constantino Diaz-Duran is a fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University. He is chronicling his walk from New York to Los Angeles to celebrate his eligibility for American citizenship. Follow Constantino’s progress.

*Photo by Constantino Diaz-Duran.

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