Alabama town closely watches new immigration law

By Jay Reeves

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Aug. 21 2011 3:50 p.m. MDT

Students sit in the gym at Crossville Elmentary School in Crossville, Ala., on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011. Despite being in an almost all-white town, the school's enrollment is about 65 percent Hispanic. Both English- and Spanish-speaking residents say they are awaiting the outcome of a federal court hearing on Alabama's new law cracking down on illegal immigration.

Jay Reeves, Associated Press

CROSSVILLE, Ala. — Most every face in Crossville's small downtown is white except at the elementary school. There, Spanish-speaking children with black hair and dark skin far outnumber their Caucasian classmates.

As much as anywhere in Alabama, Crossville is Exhibit A for supporters of a tough new state law cracking down on illegal immigration. And residents — both English- and Spanish-speaking — are paying close attention as a federal judge this week considers whether to let the law take effect Sept. 1.

U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn will hear arguments Wednesday in Birmingham from Hispanic organizations, public interest groups and religious leaders who want the law blocked. The Obama administration has also said the law should be blocked, arguing the state is unconstitutionally attempting to usurp federal immigration law.

The Alabama attorney general's office declined comment on how it will defend the law, but state legislators who support it filed court documents last week saying the federal government is illegally treading on state sovereignty.

About 90 miles northeast of Birmingham, Crossville looks like any other rural, mostly white city in the state. The main part of town is a mix of white-owned small businesses, churches and old homes.

But five miles west lies Kilpatrick, a community some Alabama-born residents call "little Tijuana" because of its overwhelming number of Spanish-speaking immigrants. There, roadside signs are in Spanish and many residents work in poultry plants. They live in mobile homes and send their children to town to attend the elementary school, which is about 65 percent Hispanic.

Census figures show 1,297 people live in Crossville, and all but nine of them are white. But DeKalb County, where Crossville is located, has more than 7,100 residents. Many live in Kilpatrick, where scores of families live along dirt roads cut into rolling fields. School buses loaded with Hispanic children make the trip each day between those dusty neighborhoods and Crossville Elementary.

Jeff Simpson runs a gas station in Crossville, and he's tired of seeing people he believes are illegal immigrants use state welfare money to buy food and other items. He said Alabama natives are spending too much educating the children of immigrants. Simpson believes legislators were right to pass a law that both supporters and critics say is the nation's toughest on illegal immigration.

"I don't have anything against them, but I don't like them putting nothing into the system and getting free crap," Simpson said. "They're bleeding the government dry."

A few miles away in Kilpatrick, Ivan Barrera said the law already is hurting business at his supermarket. While school officials say Hispanic enrollment is up from last year, Barrera said some immigrant families are leaving out of fear of being stopped by police and put in jail if they don't have proper documents.

"It's hard for the Spanish-speaking people," said Barrera, a legal resident originally from Mexico who is married to a U.S. citizen. "They are scared of the police."

The law — passed by Alabama's Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Robert Bentley in June — includes many of the same provisions as similar laws passed in states including Arizona and Georgia. Backers say the law is needed to prevent valuable services from going to people living in the state illegally and to save jobs for legal residents in of Alabama, where unemployment is 10 percent.

The sweeping law would let police check documents and arrest anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant if the person is stopped for some other reason. It also would require all businesses to check the legal status of workers using a federal database called E-Verify.

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