Union leaders draw comparison between Jim Crow and anti-immigrant laws

A group of African-American trade unionists and Civil Rights activists visited Alabama the day after 13 people were arrested for acts of civil disobedience against Alabama’s new anti-immigrant law. The trade unionist are on a fact-finding mission for a report that the AFL-CIO is preparing to advise people in the labor movement how they can assist those affected by the law.

“It’s disturbing to us as working people,” said Fred Redmond of the United Steelworkers. “It’s disturbing to us as a movement, and it’s disturbing to us as a country to realize that in 2011, here in the state of Alabama, people are being disenfranchised. They’re being discriminated against. Kids are being denied the right of an education. This is not the America that we know.”

“It looks like the old racism of the civil rights era,” said Al Henley, president of the Alabama AFL-CIO, who met with the labor group and a group of people affected by the new law at a Birmingham restaurant. “But it also presents an opportunity for the labor movement to engage in the struggle against the law and also organize union and political efforts more broadly in the state.”

At the Birmingham meeting and at others in different cities, members of the labor delegation heard first hand how the new law is affecting people. Victor Palafox is a 19 year-old student who recently graduated from high school. He applied for admission to Auburn and the University of Alabama at Birmingham and was accepted. Before he could start school this fall, the Alabama Legislature passed HB 56, which among other things forbids state funded higher education institutions from enrolling students like Palafox.

“I am undocumented and unafraid,” said Palafox, who came to the US with his parents when he was young. “There is no reason I should be ashamed because all I have ever done is give the best for my country.”

A court ruling recently found that the section of HB 56 affecting  Palafox and other immigrant students could not be enforced. As a result, Palafox could have gone to college this fall but instead has become a full-time activists in the movement to overturn HB 56.

The day before Palafox spoke to the labor delegation, 13 people were arrested in Montgomery, the state capital, for participating in a sit-in protesting HB 56. They are members of The Dream Is Coming, a national group that supports passage of the DREAM Act, a federal law that would create a citizenship path for immigrants without immigration documents who enroll in college or join the military.

Students aren’t the only ones affected by HB 56. Tony Quintana told the labor delegation that he worked drywall construction until he saved enough money to open a grocery store in Leeds, Alabama. The store served mainly immigrant workers from Latin America, who work at lowing-paying jobs in the area.

Many of his customers started leaving the area after HB 56 passed, which put him out of business. They left because they feared for their safety. HB 56 was written to make it difficult for immigrants without proper documents to work, travel, rent housing, or go to school, not unlike the  Jim Crow laws that segregated and made second-class citizens of African-Americans in Alabama and other southern states.

HB 56 affects citizens as well as immigrants. Quintana’s children were born in US and are US citizens. But their parents are keeping them home from school because they fear that the school will check their parents’ immigration status, which could lead to their deportation.

Redmond and his fellow unionist think that anti-immigrant laws like those passed in Alabama and Arizona are aimed at disenfranchising a growing segment of US voters, Latinos, both those born in the US and those who have immigrated. “We see laws popping up around the country that are totally designed to disenfranchise people from the political process,” Redmond said. “The good news is: it’s not going to work. Too many people gave their lives (to protect voting rights).”

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