Friday, September 30, 2011

A lesson not quite learned

Montgomery, Ala.—It is sadly ironic that the same day a federal judge upholds major sections of the Alabama immigration law—the most restrictive in the nation—the state also receives an ‘A’ on its educational work in teaching civil rights history.

It’s ironic because this comes at a time when the most retrogressive forces in Alabama claim a victory, although it is unclear to me against whom.

U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn did block some provisions of HB 56, including, as the Montgomery Advertiser reports, “one that makes it a crime to willfully harbor or conceal aliens and another that makes it a crime for undocumented aliens to work in the state.” HB 56 goes now into effect and makes it legal, among other things, to detain somebody if there is “reasonable suspicion” that that person is in the country without proper documentation. It also requires schools to collect information on the immigration status of students.

Called by Gov. Robert Bentley "the strongest immigration law in our country," this piece of legislation has officially become Alabama’s badge of honor.

But the governor has something else to be proud of these days: the just released Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education 2011 reports that Alabama receives excellent grading when it comes to the instruction of civil rights history. Specifically, according to the Alabama Course of Study (2004) for social studies cited in the SPLC study, seventh graders studying civics are required to “describe examples of conflict, cooperation, and interdependence of groups, societies, and nations, using past and current events.” (30) This suggested activity, we read in the report, is intended to trace “the political and social impact of the modern civil rights movement from 1954 to the present, including Alabama’s role” (30).

So at age 13, students of the state should be able to make connections with other histories and movements, past and present, associated with the universal struggle for civil rights.

The lesson of the civil rights movement, or so I thought and learned during my schooling in Italy, was one of tolerance and solidarity. To me, it was about bringing about our humanity. Our best side. African Americans were the protagonists of that struggle, but its lessons could be extended to other fights for social justice in the United States as well as elsewhere. It was a message that resonated in South Africa were a few, enlightened individuals coalesced around the charismatic leader Nelson Mandela (in prison from 1963 until 1990) and built a movement that eventually led to the end of the apartheid; but it was a message also taken up by César Chávez in this country in the struggle to improve farm workers’ conditions. In the last few years of his suddenly interrupted existence, Martin Luther King Jr. himself expanded his message of racial justice to include the fight against social inequality and poverty in America.

So I thought, foolish me, that the most powerful, enduring message of the civil rights movement had to do with bringing our humanity into policymaking: fighting to eradicate poverty, not rewarding the wealthiest for ‘creating jobs’ or the financial gurus of the world ‘to save our economy from collapsing’.

America 2011: nearly one in six lives in poverty, according to the most recent US Census. And the Pew Hispanic Center reports that there are over six million Hispanic children living in poverty. The current economic recession seems to have hit the Latino community the hardest: their kids are now the largest group of children living below the poverty line in the US.

We can argue until the end of times what we mean by federal authority over immigration matters and the extent to which states should act upon the Immigration and Nationality Act. And it seems that, after all, the Supreme Court will have a final word on the constitutionality of anti-immigration state laws. All parties agree that the nation is in dire need of a comprehensive immigration reform; in the last few years, the federal government has been actually working through the Department of Homeland Security to combat illegal immigration at the local and state level. For instance, several states have by now implemented 287 (g) programs that authorize the federal government to enter into agreements with state authorities and allow local police to cross-designate officers to enforce immigration law. A similar agreement, launched in October 2008, is Secure Communities, which detects non citizens that are in custody of the law enforcement. Not only are their fingerprints run through federal criminal databases, but now they are also checked against DHS immigration databases. Immigration and Custom Enforcement can now deport a non citizen as a result of this operation. As of June 2011, Secure Communities was active in 1,400 jurisdictions, as the National Immigration Forum reports.

Both programs are intended to identify aliens who have committed crimes in this country. However, as a result, these initiatives, as well as the Arizona law and its copycats (including HB 56), have ended up criminalizing all immigrants who lack proper documentation. The immediate result of that is, for the fiscally conservatives, diverting resources: ICE shifted its target from actual criminals and terrorism suspects to “ordinary status violators” with the result of criminalizing the latter while reducing the pressure on drug and human smugglers. In Alabama, law enforcement has already complained about the implications of HB 56 for counties already in distress due to the devastation brought by the tornadoes in April.

In a state where the undocumented population is on the rise, yet it is still quite small—the Hispanic Pew Center estimates it to be around 2.5 percent (and 4.2 percent of the labor force)—I wonder whether policymaking efforts should be elsewhere directed. As the Anniston Star suggests, should the fact that more than a million adult Alabamians are functionally illiterate (25% of the state population) receive more attention from Alabama legislators?

What we shouldn’t argue about any longer, in light of the legacy of the civil rights movement, is whether legislators should pursue more humane policies.

In a state where communities are highly gentrified and social separation is palpable, it is easy to pontificate about the respect of the law when the law seems not to be about you, your family and your next-door neighbor.

“This law was never designed to hurt fellow human beings,” Bentley declared after the ruling. “As a physician, I would never ask a sick person if she was legal or illegal. But as governor of this state, it is my sworn duty to uphold this state's laws, and that is what I intend to do."

Apparently Bentley adjusts his ethical values depending on whether he complies with the Hippocrates Oath or the Alabama law. Fact is, this governor failed to set high expectations when it comes to bringing tolerance and solidarity into policymaking on day one. It was Martin Luther King’s Day and I was at the Dexter Church when Bentley, after he had just been sworn in, declared from the pulpit that he was ‘colorblind’ and only ‘brother’ to Christians.

Fifty-eight percent of the 11.2 millions of undocumented immigrants present in the US, as estimated by the Pew Hispanic Center, are Mexican.

Now “getting in line” is not really an option for immigrants coming from high immigration countries like Mexico. Moreover, only 5,000 green cards are available annually for less-skilled workers.

An option, however, is to jump on a train, then cross the Sonoran desert, risk your life and the ones of the children with you and hope that one day you won’t have to regret putting your own children through such a hazardous adventure.

An option is to believe that in America their children will have a better life, as they know that back home they wouldn’t.

As a teacher, I well know that giving a student a grade depends on how the rest of the class is doing. One student's grade is thus relative to the performances of the other classmates. In this regard, the results of the SPLC study are troublesome at best. According to the report, the majority of the states ‘fail’ when it comes to teaching about the civil rights movement. And the study states that a “GRADE A means Alabama includes at least 60% of the recommended content and sets higher expectations for its students than other states.” (30) But if Alabama, which just passed the most extreme anti-immigration bill in the country, gets an ‘A’ in civil rights education, then what exactly have we as a society learned about civil rights?

Perhaps we need to wait for a more enlightened generation of Alabamians to see a change in how we understand and act upon the lessons of the civil rights movement.

Friday, April 8, 2011

¡Viva México!

The Alabama House voted yes to the anti-immigration bill sponsored by Representative Micky Hammon, R-Decatur on Tuesday. The proposed legislation mimics Arizona’s SB 1070 and plays on xenophobic feelings recently further fostered by the economic downturn.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the state counts only 3.2% persons of Hispanic or Latino origin (vs. 15.8% in the US). The presence of Latinos in Alabama has grown exponentially in the last few years, and the official data admittedly don’t reveal the actual numbers of Hispanics who lack proper documentation to live in the United States. However, the economic recession has affected the immigration flows as well since all potential workers have been having a hard time finding jobs.

Critics of the legislation question its economic rationale and some also point to the further governmental intrusion into people’s lives (what about small government?) As in Arizona, the main concern regards indeed racial profiling. SB 1070 is in court at the moment and its constitutionality has been questioned.

Likewise, the Alabama Senate will have to vote on the law; if approved, Governor Bentley will have to sign it; then, a similar procedure awaits the piece of legislation in court.

On Thursday, I volunteered at the Church of the Ascension in the Garden District of Montgomery. Hundreds of Mexican citizens have flooded the low corridors of the church this week.

The Mexican consulate of Atlanta set up a mobile outpost at the Church in order to provide consular registration and passports to Mexican nationals residing in Alabama. As Pamela Long, coordinator of the International Studies Program at AUM and Hispanic Minister at the Church of the Ascension reports: in the past two years, the Church of the Ascension has hosted this event three times—each time about 800 to 1000 documents were issued.

On my volunteer shift on Thursday, my task was handing “lapiceros” (Mexican Spanish for “pens”) to the ones who need it: a $1 donation was requested. Funny thing was that most of the people thought I was taking offerings for the church and kept throwing bills in my little wicker basket. I had to turn them down.

Best part about the whole experience was looking at the small children walking up and down the aisles: the most beautiful ninos in Alabama! They are, also, the future of this state and of the country—projections are saying that Latinos will be the new majority by 2040.

Representative Hammon wants “to discourage illegal immigrants from coming to Alabama and prevent those who are here from putting down roots.” Attempts to criminalize Mexicans and other foreigners are vicious and, in Alabama, even economically un-sound. Several advocate groups protested in front of the Alabama State House in early March. That didn’t prevent the bill to get passed in the House. If Alabama intends to get rid of the stigma that has stained its historical past in terms of civil and human rights, it cannot allow this bill to go any further.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Alabama 2011 – New Governor is Color Blind

Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I have come to think, re-centers me, especially since I moved to Montgomery, Ala. The holiday is a day dedicated to service to others but also is meant to recommit to what we do in our daily lives. What I do is teaching students about the media. Specifically, I like to think that I teach them how to read, criticize, use and often resist media manipulation. In a word, to become ‘medialiterate.’ I also teach public speaking and human communication to students who are not majoring in the field. The ability to appropriately and effectively communicate in public is considered a powerful tool and one that politicians should be able to use to better convey their messages.

So I thought about my students today while I was sitting in the Dexter Avenue Church. I attended the service that the Bobby Jackson and the World Heritage Organization have been sponsoring for 36 years. As I was handed the program, I was pleased to see that Governor Robert Bentley was to speak also, right after he was sworn in, perhaps four hundred feet away, in front of the State Capitol, surrounded by the local political intelligentsia. Sure, I wanted to hear what this retired dermatologist had to say to the people who had gathered to commemorate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King. After all, he had admirably promised during his gubernatorial campaign not to draw his $121,000 annual paycheck until he reached his goal of lowering the unemployment rate (currently at 9%) to 5.2%. Not an easy task, according to the forecasts for recovery of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama (“Bentley's salary hinges on him keeping jobs promise,” by Philip Rawls - January 17, 2011, Montgomery Advertiser).

“The teleprompter went off,” Gov. Bentley said, referring to the inaugural speech he just delivered. He had just begun with his remarks. People in the audience laughed. A nice attention grabber after all. But then, becoming aware of his audience, and of the occasion, Gov. Bentley right out of the gate announced himself to be color blind. To further prove his point, he produced an anecdote telling of a time when, asked how many African American patients he had had in the many years of his practice, he answered he wouldn’t know. Obviously he didn’t notice that he was in a church full of Black people. He didn’t even notice, when he told the audience that it’s not easy to trust a Republican governor. (Would he have said that in front of a bunch of wealthy White folks?) So Gov. Bentley may have done a bit of audience analysis there; yet the governor’s beliefs emerged strongly when he had to retrieve to a trope like the “I don’t see no color” in order to supposedly appeal to a “different” audience.

The reactions were timid and almost impromptu (or so it seemed) was Bentley’s attempt to further appeal to his audience, which, he assumed, was made up solely of Christians; in fact, he said that if they were Christian (“they have been saved,” “were filled with the Holy Spirit” as he put it, perhaps galvanized by his standing behind a pulpit), then they were his brothers and sisters, and prompted whomever wasn’t (Christian) to become one. Bentley-the deacon and Sunday school teacher for over thirty years in Tuscaloosa wanted them to be his brothers and sisters, he remarked, as to show the extent of his Christian love. This conditional love and equality (this blind, yet equalizing love, at one condition) he offered to the audience as well as his attempt to show he’s no racist, speaks volume of his reactionary beliefs and, I hope to be disproved, his future policies.

Gov. Bentley said he visited Martin Luther King’s office downstairs from the sanctuary; when asked if he wanted to sit in his chair, he refused. I’m glad he did. As I’m glad he said Dr. King was one of the greatest men has ever lived in the United States and in the world. What the governor didn’t say was that his message, regardless of the importance of his presence at Dexter today, is quite different from the one of Dr. King. And I’m afraid no improvement in communication skills or public speaking will make it better.

Unfortunately, Gov. Bentley’s strain of Christianity admits only the saved ones in the graces of the Lord—and for all that matters, in the land of Alabama. This was not the message of Dr. King who was accepting of people of all races and religions. Dr. King was fighting for economic equality before he got shot. He wanted to eliminate poverty in the United States. He dreamed a dream that resonated since then throughout the entire world, still speaks to peoples of different upbringings and walks of life because of its universal message of peace, tolerance and solidarity. Dr. King rejected violence; like the vicious ones of the many killings and lynching and assassinations (too many) that occurred all over the South up until the 1990s (too recent), most of which are still, to this day, unsolved. Those martyrs who are remembered at the Civil Rights Memorial on Washington.

I understand that a message of unity is important for Alabamians; as an outsider, I want to believe that many people of goodwill have tried to heal social scars, perhaps through reconciliatory politics. Bentley said he will be the governor of all Alabamians. I doubt you can do that in a state where social inequality is so tangible.

I hope Gov. Bentley won’t forget the children of his state, their health and education. I hope he will be reminded, instead, that counties are different in Alabama and that different communities have different needs. Some definitely more urgent than others. They are not all the same as the governor suggested today, and his attention to them shouldn’t be equal. Because, as Dr. King wrote from a jail in Birmingham in 1963, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” So it won’t be by protecting the privileges of the few (chosen Christians) that we’re making this state and the world a safer place.

As his first public appearance as Governor, Bentley did anything but impress me. The Black woman who was sitting next to me in church asked me if I could email her the pictures of the governor (she had forgotten her camera, she said), even offered me money for the photo. I hope Gov. Bentley won’t disappoint her too much after all.