MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Hundreds packed the Alabama Statehouse courtyard on Tuesday to rally against the state's tough immigration law, with organizers saying they chose to send a message on Valentine's Day that lawmakers need to love and respect immigrants.
People bused in from across the state to demand repeal of the law that aims to be tough on those in the country illegally.
Protesters carried signs reading, "Gov. Bentley, don't you have a heart?" ''No Juan Crow" and "Una Familia, Una Alabama." They chanted in Spanish and English, "No more HB56" (the bill that became the law) and "One family, one Alabama." They delivered lollipops and Valentines to lawmakers, urging them to strike down the law.
Legislative leaders have said they plan to introduce a bill in the coming weeks to make subtle changes to the law. However, House Majority Leader Micky Hammon, one of the sponsors of the immigration bill, said the proposal will not make major changes and is not aimed at softening the law.
Rally organizers said the changes aren't enough, and a full repeal is needed.
"Tweaks are only temporary Band-Aids, not a permanent solution," said Zayne Smith, a coordinator with the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice.
The wide-ranging law requires police to determine citizenship status during traffic stops and requires government offices to verify legal residency for everyday transactions like obtaining a car license, enrolling a child in school, getting a job or renewing a business license
Opponents say they'll spend more days at the Legislature lobbying against the law, parts of which have been blocked by federal courts. The law was passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and took effect in the fall. Opponents say it's hurting the state's economy and image; supporters say it's providing jobs for legal residents.
Carmen Espinoza, 17, a high school student at Montgomery Catholic, moved to the state from California last year. An immigrant from Mexico, she is in the country legally, but some friends and family members are not. She moved to live with her aunt because her family was worried about gangs and violence in southern California, she said.
"In California, there was a big Hispanic community — we never had to deal with racism," Espinoza said. "Now here, when people see me, the first think they ask is, 'Do you have papers?' It's not fair. We're all equal."
Espinoza said she saw the trailer park where she lives with her aunt and two cousins clear out almost overnight after legislators passed the law. She said illegal immigrants left 80 trailers behind with all of their possessions still inside.
Teachers have made racist comments to her cousins, calling one a "hood Mexican," she said. She lives in constant fear for her friends and family who are in the country illegally.
"It's a fear we all live with — our family could be stopped because of our appearance," Espinoza said. "It's horrible to live in fear."
Her aunt, Irma Alvarez, 39, moved to Montgomery in 2008 because it was quieter than California and she thought it would be a good place to raise her two sons. She has a hard time understanding why lawmakers are targeting immigrants, she said.
"We didn't agree to this treatment," Alvarez said. "We're here, we contribute to the community, we pay taxes."
Her sons, age 11 and 14, didn't go to school for a few weeks when the law first passed — they were afraid of being asked for their papers. A requirement for schools to track the immigration status of students has been thrown out by the courts, she said.
The Rev. Dr. Sharon Richards, president of the Metro Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the bill has caused an economic disaster.
"Everybody is appalled down there on the farms because there's nobody to pick the fruits and vegetables — they're rotting in the fields," Richards said. "It's affecting all industries. There are some jobs only immigrants are willing to do."
Elois Zeanah, the president of the Alabama Federation of Republican Women, disagreed. She wrote in a Tuesday news release the law is working, especially in reducing unemployment in the state.
"Illegal aliens are self-deporting! Unemployment is down! Tax dollars paid in public benefits to illegal aliens are down!" she wrote.
Alabama's unemployment rate fell to 8.1percent in December, down from 8.7 percent in November. Zeanah called on legislators to leave the law unchanged.
The expected changes are supposed to address objections raised by religious leaders, law enforcement and others.