WASHINGTON - On Dec. 1, 1955, at the height of racial segregation in the United States, a little-known middle-aged seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery City bus in the southern state of Alabama.
Her small act of civil disobedience sparked the now-legendary Montgomery bus boycott, which has become an iconic moment in the Civil Rights Movement that marked the beginning of the end of the racist Jim Crow laws in 1968.
Now activists say the signing of a draconian piece of anti- immigration legislature on Thursday has turned the once-historic site in the struggle for civil liberties and racial justice into the most dangerous place in the country for immigrants and people of colour.
House Bill 56, which was sponsored by Representative Micky Hammon and signed by Republican Governor Robert Bentley on Thursday morning in Alabama, has been moving through the pipeline for over two months now - having passed the Alabama House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee back in March - and was voted on by the full House of Representatives several weeks ago.
If nothing hinders its progress, the bill will go into effect on Sep. 1.
Modeled on essential elements of Arizona's controversial Senate Bill 1070 – which essentially legalised racial profiling and which President Barack Obama warned in April would "undermine basic notions of fairness& in our communities" - HB 56 goes a step further than its predecessor by allowing sweeping measures of identification, arrest and deportation.
The bill mandates that law enforcement officials detain or investigate anyone they deem to be "reasonably suspicious", a move critics say endangers the rights not only of immigrants but also of U.S. citizens of colour.
It makes clear that "illegal aliens" are exempt from public benefits and criminalises anyone who hires, "harbours" or even offers transport to undocumented workers – a clause that includes people giving car rides to their sick neighbours.
Under the law, employers are required to utilise the E-Verify system of identification, which many business owners have criticised for being faulty and expensive.
HB 56 also targets the education rights of immigrant youth by forcing primary and secondary schools to probe the immigration status of students and their parents and report them to the authorities, thereby tightening the noose around even U.S.-born immigrants seeking a brighter future.
"Today, Alabama effectively turned state workers, officers, and school teachers into de facto immigration agents," Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), said Thursday.
"Immigrants and people of colour will be subjected to& unconstitutional scrutiny when they take their children to school or interact with law enforcement officers," she said. "Friends and family members of undocumented immigrants will face criminal charges simply for driving them to the grocery store."
"By passing HB 56, Alabama's legislators have deemed an entire class of people not worthy of their most fundamental rights," she added. "This law& makes immigrants the latest group of people to suffer a legalisation of discriminatory behavior against them, and threatens to turn back the clock on our hard-won civil rights."
Legal battle looms
A powerful group of advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Alabama, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the NLIC, have coalesced to take HB 56 by the horns.
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"We are planning to bring litigation to challenge this bill, which we believe to be blatantly unconstitutional," Mary Bauer, the legal director of the SPLC, told IPS.
"HB 56 not only contains some of the very same provisions from SB 1070 that have already been declared unconstitutional by a federal court, but goes way beyond to really extreme measures – by criminalising churches that provide shelter to immigrants and making it illegal for landlords to rent their property to anyone who looks 'Latino', the bill paves the way for terrible racial profiling and discrimination," she added.
Karen Tumlin, managing attorney at NILC, told IPS, "The provision that allows local law enforcers to indentify immigration status& is absolutely unconstitutional because it allows local enforcement officials to fill a role that they are neither trained nor allowed to fill, a role that is specifically designated to the federal government. It will also almost undoubtedly lead to arbitrary arrests and unwarranted searches."
"This breeds fear in communities of colour, whether they are immigrants or citizens," Tumlin added. "It makes people afraid to go about their lives, it stigmatises accents, it profiles skin colour."
Of great concern for legal advocates has been the fact that prosecutors in Alabama are now expected to turn victims of crime over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the conclusion of criminal proceedings.
"Just imagine a woman going to a government prosecutor because she has been raped, knowing that what's awaiting her at the end of a legal process is ICE, and perhaps even removal," Bauer told IPS. "Even before the law comes into effect, this is a possibility that is so chilling it will likely deter victims from coming forward to report crimes at all."
"We hope to file the lawsuit well in advance of September 1 and that the court will prevent it from ever going into effect," she added. "It is our hope and expectation that this will never be the law in Alabama."
According to the most recent figures in the 2010 Census, Alabama's Hispanic population has nearly doubled since 2000 to 186,000 - or 2.9 percent – of the state's 4.8 million-strong population.
However, though proponents of the bill have harped on increased immigration into Alabama needing to be "controlled", others believe that the increases are negligible.
"According to our research about 30 percent of the immigrants in Alabama are citizens, so we're really talking about a very small number compared with most other states," Bauer told IPS.
"The notion that Alabama is being overrun by illegal immigration is false – what this bill really is is the worst form of political posturing. It is unlikely to ever go into effect and it's going to eat up a lot of taxpayer money to defend in court."
Despite this, the battle continues.
"Though we deeply regret that our taxes dollars will be spent defending this unconstitutional law, we are confident that justice will prevail through the courts," Isabel Rubio, the executive director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (HICA), said in a press release Thursday.
"In the meantime, HICA will continue to connect the Hispanic community to economic and civil opportunities and to advocate for immigration reform at the Federal level," she added.