"Here We May Rest: Alabama Immigrants in the Age of HB 56" By: Silvia Giagnoni

Sep 25, 2017

“Here We May Rest: Alabama Immigrants in the Age of HB 56”

Author: Silvia Giagnoni   

Publisher: NewSouth Books

Pages: 276

Price: $29.95 (Trade paper)

Silvia Giagnoni is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and Theatre at AUM. She moved to the U.S. from Italy, at the age of 26, with a B.A. and an M.A. in hand, to attend graduate school in Florida. Her first book was “Fields of Resistance: The Struggle of Florida’s Farmworkers for Justice.”

Giagnoni has since married a U.S. citizen and borne two children. She brings to this study a firm grounding in scholarship and methods of research and, more importantly perhaps, an empathy, a knowledge of what it feels like to live and work in a new country, far from everything familiar, operating, and writing, in a second language.

Not surprisingly, the passage of House Bill 56, although it was no direct threat to her, attracted her attention.

This piece of legislation, signed by former governor Bentley on June 9, 2011, was officially called the Hammon-Beason Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act.

Inspired by the activism of then Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the bill was designed to protect Alabama jobs by reducing the flow of undocumented immigrants into the state and by generating “self-deportation” achieved by “attrition through enforcement”—that is, to generate fear among the immigrants, so they would leave.

In a series of 49 interviews in and around Montgomery, with both legal and undocumented immigrants, Hispanic, Korean, Indian, Vietnamese and others, Giagnoni captures the immigrants’ feelings of anxiety and uncertainty and the way this legislation seemingly freed many Alabama acquaintances and neighbors to treat them rudely, sometimes even violently. These interviews really put a human face on the immigrants’ problems, fears, even despair.

Giagnoni has studied the nuances of this legislation, chronicling the various parts that have been disallowed by the courts. More powerfully, she demonstrates that the legislation, even those parts that are, technically, legal, is cruel and resulted in consequences unforeseen as well as intended.

HB 56 made it a crime for unauthorized persons to work in Alabama and illegal as well for any legal U.S. resident to enter into a business transaction with “aliens not lawfully present in the United States.” “HB 56 criminalized otherwise lawful conduct like paying a bill or signing a contract.”

Undocumented people came to fear interacting with any kind of public agency, even though most were working and paying taxes. In some cases, it became illegal even for churches to help these immigrants, to provide food, shelter or transportation.

Alabamians at first seemed to favor the legislation but partly perhaps because the threat had been wildly oversold. There was no “flood” of immigrants. In 2011 the percentage of all foreign born in Alabama was 3.4 and that included executives from the Mercedes and Hyundai plants. It might have been even lower had companies such as chicken producer Gold Kist and others not put up billboards in Mexico proclaiming there were lots of jobs in Russellville, Alabama, and providing contact information. After the Great Recession of 2009, net migration from Mexico was about zero.

In any case, the bill was so successful that in 2011, “…crops began to rot in the fields. Construction and landscape businesses complained about the scarcity of laborers.”

It was theorized that unemployed or under-employed Alabamians would take these jobs as migrant workers and chicken processors.

They did not and this “situation” was “used to revive negative stereotypes about African Americans.”

The sponsors of this bill needed to “sell” it to the public. Giagnoni, a mass communications expert, explains how this was done, and it was not easy.

After all, the stereotype of Mexicans has largely been that they are hard-working, religious, and family oriented. The challenge was to make them a menace. This was done largely through language.

By using a drumbeat of the phrase “illegal aliens” then “illegals,” the religious, industrious, family-oriented Mexican became a criminal, not a person without papers, but a criminal. Much of this was done on conservative television and I was again surprised to learn that “Alabamians watch more television than residents of any other state” (and, coincidentally, 32 percent of adult Alabamians are overweight).

I did not know, but learned here, that it is not identity theft for a worker to use a false social security number, and when doing so, taxes are withheld. But they are never refunded; no one applies for the refund. The government keeps that money. There are 3.1 million people working and paying taxes in the U.S. in this fashion.

Governor Bentley defended his position on HB 56 by referring to law and scripture: “If you read what I read in the Bible, the Bible says you always obey the law.”’

Rev. Fred L. Hammond of Tuscaloosa achieved considerable attention by reminding readers of his blog that Jesus technically “broke the law”’ by healing on the Sabbath, and interfering with the legal stoning of an adulterous woman.

HB 56 may have been mostly legal, but Giagnoni has convinced me it certainly was mean-spirited.

Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.