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More stories from the ground in Alabama- Some Families Flee, Others Stay Behind and Live in Fear

Continuing the story of the Gonzales family in Birmingham, Alabama and how they have been impacted by HB 56. Previous posts include ‘Life after Alabama’s anti-immigrant law for an American family names Gonzales’ and ‘Singled out in Alabama schools.’

Guestblogger: Vesna Jaksic. Crossposted from the ACLU.

Since parts of Alabama’s anti-immigrant law, H.B. 56, took effect, many families have been fleeing the state in fear. Cineo Gonzales, an Alabama resident and a father of two, talks here about those who left in a hurry, including families with children who are American citizens.

“Their children are U.S. citizens and they are running away in their own country,” said Gonzales, a taxi driver who has been receiving calls from many panicked families.

 Others stayed behind, but their lives have been anything but normal. During a visit to Alabama last week, many families told me that they now live in constant fear and are scared to go to work, school or the grocery store. From small cities like Albertville to the capital of Montgomery and in between, many Hispanic residents said they are now afraid of getting stopped by the police because the law encourages racial profiling.

“When the law passed, I didn’t work for a week,” a landscape worker from Mexico told me. “I had fear because people said police will see your face and stop you, see you’re Latino.”

The worker, who lives in Montgomery and has been in Alabama for seven years, told me he tries to only drive to work now, and is even scared to do that.

“We work to live,” he said. “If we can’t work, we can’t eat and we can’t live.”

The law affects not only the undocumented, but many legal residents and citizens as well. One high school senior told me his three siblings — all U.S. citizens — are afraid they will be separated from their mother, who is an undocumented immigrant.

“My mom just bought a home in May and she really doesn’t want to move,” said the Birmingham area resident, who is 18. “She spent her whole savings trying to build this home for us.”

He was born in Mexico but has lived in the United States since he was a baby, most of it in Alabama. He is bilingual, gets good grades and has a part-time job after school.

“They brought me here since I was one month old,” he told me. “If I go back, I don’t know what I would do.”

Let Children Learn — In Alabama and Beyond

Guestbloggers: Azadeh Shahshahani, National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project Director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia,  and Daniel Altschuler, a political scientist and free-lance journalist.

True or false: No child in this country can be denied a public education. The answer is true, thanks to the Supreme Court’s 1982 Plyler v. Doe decision, which held that schools could not exclude children based on their immigration status. This is settled law, but not for Alabama legislators, who passed an anti-immigrant law (HB 56) with a provision requiring elementary and secondary schools to determine students’ and parents’ citizenship status.

With a federal district court refusing to enjoin this provision, families with an undocumented family member are already keeping their children, including U.S. citizens, out of school. And, though an appellate court last month temporarily blocked the K-12 reporting requirement, the right to primary education access for all in our country remains in jeopardy.

This summer, civil and immigrant rights groups, religious institutions and the Department of Justice challenged HB 56 in federal court. Alabama’s law contains many troubling provisions contained in anti-immigrant laws in other states, such as Arizona and Georgia, which were blocked by federal courts. But it goes much further, including the requirement in Section 28 that K-12 school officials determine their students’ and parents’ immigration status. Although the district court blocked certain sections of the law, it allowed this piece to stand.

As with Georgia’s HB 87, proponents of HB 56 claim they are removing the drain on state resources. But, in truth, officials like Governor Robert Bentley are scapegoating immigrants for political gain at a time of economic insecurity. They have confessed their desire to expel undocumented immigrants from the state.  HB 56 sponsor Micky Hammon asserted, “This [bill] attacks every aspect of an illegal immigrant’s life… [T]his bill is designed to make it difficult for them to live here so they will deport themselves.”

The law is so extreme that Wade Henderson, President and CEO of the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights,  concluded that Alabama’s “draconian initiative is so oppressive that Bull Connor himself would be impressed.” Birmingham’s former sheriff, you may recall, once used attack dogs and fire-hoses on African-American children.

Even those skeptical of immigration’s well-documented economic benefits should be appalled by Alabama officials’ willingness to target children. In addition to violating the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause, Section 28 is morally repugnant. It uses state power to keep immigrant children, who bear no responsibility for their status, out of school. Moreover, while so many Alabama public schools are failing, the law unconscionably redirects scarce education resources towards immigration policing.

Finally, as the Court held in Plyler, “It is difficult to understand precisely what the State hopes to achieve by promoting the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare, and crime.”

Sadly, HB 56 may reflect a larger national trend. In May, the Department of Justice issued a memo reaffirming the illegality of asking students about their immigration status. This followed illegal reporting requirements and efforts in other states to pass education provisions similar to HB 56. Recent reports by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for instance, found that roughly 20 percent of New York and New Jersey public school districts requested information from students that would indicate their immigration status. Similar practices abound in Arizona, where fully half of school districts surveyed by the ACLU sought such information.

The Department of Justice was right to issue its memo, and to seek data from Alabama school districts in the wake of HB 56′s passage to investigate potential violations of civil rights statutes which protect educational opportunities for schoolchildren. It must be even more vigilant about illegal school reporting policies across the country, which may rise as restrictionist officials seek to copy HB 56.

It is encouraging that the appellate court temporarily blocked the education provision of HB 56. But beating Section 28 in court, while essential, will not by itself ensure that all American children can go to school without fear.  Legislators and education officials around the country must take heed: our classrooms are no place for the refrain, “Papers, please.”

Crossposted from the Huffington Post.

A version of this article first appeared in the Fulton County Daily Report. Reprinted with permission from the October 28, 2011 issue of the Daily Report © 2011 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

Photo courtesy of 12uspost.com

Spread the word and stop the hate in Alabama: Helplines and stories from the ground

Despite the Federal court of appeals blocking some provisions of Alabama’s HB 56 anti-immigrant law, including the one that stated that all schools had to check the immigration status of incoming students, stories of children, workers and families being impacted by the repercussions of the law continue to flood the internet. The law, which supporters and proponents say is “going according to plan,” has succeeded in creating a climate of fear and persecution similar to one that existed during the Jim Crow era in the South.

Scott Douglas, III, Executive Director of Greater Birmingham Ministries said that Alabama’s new anti-immigration law worked to “put families on the run and divide them” and was “one of Alabama’s worst times since Jim Crow.”

 When Politico spoke to Alabama Republican Mo Brooks about what they referred to as the “unintended consequences” of the law, such as the fact that on October 7th, 2300 children were missing from Alabama schools, he responded saying-

Those are the intended consequences of Alabama’s legislation with respect to illegal aliens. We don’t have the money in America to keep paying for the education of everybody else’s children from around the world. We simply don’t have the financial resources to do that. Second, with respect to illegal aliens who are now leaving jobs in Alabama, that’s exactly what we want.

Here are some stories of the direct impact (‘intended consequences’) of HB 56 in Alabama that have come up during the last two weeks while the law has been in effect.

From America’s Voice-

- The Birmingham News reported that one school called all their Hispanic students into the cafeteria and asked them to publicly announce their own, and their parents’ immigration status

- “One young father from Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico told me, through tears, that his 12-year-old son, who is undocumented, has always been an honor student who recently won a school trip to go to the Space Museum in Huntsville. He didn’t go, because he was afraid the police would detain him. ‘We don’t have much time to think it over … maybe we can get our affairs in order here in two or three weeks and see what our options are, maybe moving to another state, or straight to Mexico,’ the father said. (Reported by Maribel Hastings)

- “Some families don’t dare to leave the house, even to get basic items like food. The church deacon said that he knew people who had gone days without leaving to buy groceries; he had offered to bring them food himself.” (Reported by Pili Tobar)

From a Facebook page called ‘Personal stories of HB 56 in Alabama-’

- “A white friend was pulled over by a police officer in Ozark yesterday. Confused by what documentation he needed, the officer radioed back to ask dispatch. Dispatch answered, “Does the person speak Spanish? If not, just get their driver’s license.”

- “A 4 year old child being served by Children’s Rehab Services in Montgomery missed three appointments in the last couple of weeks. The child has several health issues for which she needs consistent care. The interpreter working on her case went to look for the family at the apartment complex where they live; a neighbor told her that the family had left, along with most of the other Hispanic families there.”

From a Facebook page called Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice-

- “It’s really sad I couldn’t buy any fruits and vegetables last night when I went grocery shopping because everything was rotten.”

From the ACLU of Alabama’s Facebook page-

- “Third generation farmer Brian Cash watched 85% of his workforce disappear in one day as workers fled the state in fear of harassment and discrimination since Alabama’s HB56 immigration law went into effect.”

Here are some hotline numbers for people in Alabama to report civil and human rights violations as a result of HB 56, and reach out for help and assistance:

- An important number for all people in the Hispanic community in Alabama affected by the new anti-immigrant law, HB56: 1-800-982-1620

- From the Southern Poverty Law Center: “We’re gathering stories as well. Please pass along our hotline number: 1-800-982-1620. So far we’ve received more than 2,200 calls from people who have been affected by HB56.”

For updates on local protests, please check the Facebook pages mentioned above as well as ones called ‘Veto HB56 Alabama Immigration Law- Estoy Contra la Ley HB56‘ and ‘Alabama Against the HB 56.’

HB 56 has triggered widespread fear among Alabama’s immigrant communities and set off nothing short of a humanitarian crisis. We need to stand in solidarity with the people of Alabama because when we deny human rights to some we put everyone’s rights at risk.

We will continue to update you as the news happens. We also need your voice in this conversation. Please follow us on Twitter and Facebook and share your news, views and stories about HB 56 with us.

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Photo courtesy of guardian.co.uk

Alabama’s “counterproductive cruelty-” HB56 – threatens the right to education and triggers exodus from the state

It’s been looming for months like a dark, ominous cloud over Alabama. After almost five months since it was first enacted and then pondered over by U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn, Alabama’s shocking HB 56 law went into effect on September 28, officially making the state the most regressive and cruel in its attitude towards immigrants. If the supporters of the law aimed to create the nation’s most hostile environment for immigrants, they have succeeded. The news of the passage of HB 56 triggered widespread panic across immigrant communities in Alabama, prompting numerous families to pull their children out of the local schools and many others to move out of the state altogether.

Among its several stipulations, HB 56 requires police to investigate the immigration status of those pulled over for routine traffic stops. This measure ostensibly lends itself to racial profiling since it mandates that police make judgments on who to stop for “reasonable suspicion” based on their appearance. Moreover, the law will also make it a felony for an undocumented migrant to do business with the state and make it a misdemeanor for an undocumented resident to be without immigration documents if stopped and checked. In addition to permitting police to ask for documents from anyone they suspect of being undocumented, the law also invalidates contracts with undocumented immigrants, which could keep them from finding housing.

Perhaps the biggest blow from the law is to the right to public education for all children. Under HB 56, elementary and secondary schools are now required to check the immigration status of incoming students. This unconstitutional crackdown in the education sector goes against a 1982 Supreme Court ruling that all children living in the United States have the right to a public education, regardless of their immigration status. In the case, Plyler vs. Doe in Texas, the justices had struck down a state statute that denied funding for education to undocumented students and charged such students $1000 annual fee to compensate for the lost state funding. The judgement was formed on the rationale  that an uneducated immigrant community was not beneficial for the country.

That reasoning, it seems, was lost on the Alabama state government that just passed HB 56. The law’s damage to the state economy is already evident. The Associated Press reported in the days following the ruling, only handfuls of farm workers showed up for work. According to an article in the The New York Times on the sudden exodus of immigrants from the state-

Critics of the law, particularly farmers, contractors and home builders, say the measure has already been devastating, leaving rotting crops in fields and critical shortages of labor. They say that even fully documented Hispanic workers are leaving, an assessment that seems to be borne out in interviews here. The legal status of family members is often mixed — children are often American-born citizens — but the decision whether to stay rests on the weakest link.

Within just a week of the law going into effect, schools across the state of Alabama have witnessed a dramatic drop in attendance by Hispanic students, with many of them even withdrawing completely. In Montgomery County alone, over 200 Hispanic students stayed home the morning after HB 56 went into effect. Other counties and school districts also reported numerous students either absent or withdrawn over the week, prompting the superintendent in Huntsville to go on a Spanish-language TV channel in an attempt to calm the widespread worry. While authorities claim that they only want schools to report numbers and not names, communities are not convinced, fearing a likely situation where children will be targeted for their status.

This Associated Press video outlines some of the devastating elements that make HB 56 harsher than some of the anti-immigrant laws previously enacted in Arizona and Georgia-


The reactions from within the community have been those of shock, fear and hurt. Victor Palafox, a resident of Birmingham who was brought to the U.S from Mexico when he was six, commented, “Younger students are watching their lives taken from their hands.” The devastating effect this law will have on the education of immigrant children is already very visible. Legal residents such as Cuban-born Annabelle Frank expressed her fear of sending her six-year-old son to school: “I’m actually considering home-schooling. Because I don’t want him involved in all this that’s going on. I know, because he is Hispanic, in some way he’s going to be singled out, you know? I’m really afraid of that.”

HB 56 unapologetically sanctions racial profiling and in doing so, has countless repercussions on various aspects of life in Alabama. While the negative impact on education and the state economy is already becoming clear, the law will instill a climate of fear and mistrust between communities and local police and law enforcement. A New York Times editorial questions the “counterproductive cruelty” of HB 56, asking “Do Alabamans want children too frightened to go to school? Or pregnant women too frightened to seek care? Whom could that possibly benefit?”

The passage of this law could result in the isolation and ghettoization an entire section of the population. HB 56 doesn’t present any sort of solution to the issue of undocumented immigration. It only throws the entire state into jeopardy in the long run, with the immigrant communities and children bearing the absolute worst of the damage.

Laws such as Alabama’s HB 56 and Arizona’s SB 1070 are unconstitutional and against the grain of basic American values of dignity, and respect for everyone. Education is a human right. Living without fear of racial profiling is a human right. When we deny human rights to some, we put all of our rights at risk. If you think Alabama’s HB 56 is unjust, please sign this petition to the Department of Justice asking them to block the law from going into effect. To rally for Alabama’s future, click here.

Photo courtesy of colorlines.com

N.Y. State bill and new student film aim to revive the DREAM

Last week week the U.S. Census Bureau announced that there had been an unanticipated spike in the Hispanic population of the country over the last decade. Hispanics now form the country’s second-largest group, having crossed the 50 million mark, or 16.3% of the national population. This announcement comes at a significant moment in our country as debates around the treatment of undocumented immigrants intensify. The Hispanic population now forms a much bigger portion of the electorate and, with much of the immigration debate (including the DREAM Act) focusing on this group, the need for comprehensive immigration reform is becoming even more pressing.

Also in the same week the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC) announced the introduction of the first ever state version of the DREAM Act (S.4179), led by state senator Bill Perkins. If passed, this will be a major accomplishment for immigration reform advocates and will hopefully spark similar changes at the federal level. The N.Y. state version of the DREAM Act incorporates many of the same benefits as the federal version of the legislation that was defeated in the Senate in December of last year. According to the NYSYLC-

“The benefits include access to financial aid for higher education, access to driver’s licenses, work authorization and access to health care. In order to qualify for these benefits, the young person must have arrived to the United States before the age of 16, be under the age of 35, have resided in New York State for at least two years, have obtained a high school diploma or GED equivalent from an American institution and have good moral character.”

While the outcome of this bill remains to be seen, some are also skeptical of what such legislation, if passed, would actually accomplish. Steven Thrasher of the Village Voice expressed concerns that since immigration falls under federal jurisdiction, even after such legislation, New York State would have no power to halt raids by Immigrations Customs Enforcement (ICE) or to help the immigrant youth work towards U.S. citizenship. However, there is no doubt that this incarnation of the DREAM Act is a positive indication that this is a matter of national importance and that the efforts of the movement are paying off. If passed, this bill would benefit many undocumented youth such as Sonia Guinansaca, a 21-year-old young woman who is also a member of the NYSYLC. Reacting to the introduction of the state bill, Guinansaca stated-

We’re very excited, this is one of the most progressive bills particularly when we’re surrounded by failure of the federal DREAM Act and other anti-immigrant bills around the country…We’re making a statement that we are here, undocumented, unafraid, unapologetic and we’re going to work to resolve this issue. That is what this New York State campaign has meant for many of us and we’re not going to give up.

The anti-immigrant bills Guinansaca mentions are the other face of the current immigration debate around the country. While reform advocates continue to stress the urgent need for just and fair immigration reform, state legislatures around the country are vying for increased restrictions against the rights of immigrants. In addition to having adverse implications for the economic and social stability of the states in which they are enacted, these harsh anti-immigrant laws often call for state law enforcement to distinguish between people based on their appearance, a factor that goes against the constitutional fabric of the country.

A new short documentary released today by the Center for New Community explores the highly controversial SB1070 law passed in Arizona from a new angle. The poignant film, titled ‘A Look Inside SB1070′ (see below), follows a delegation of university students, from Washington D.C., New York, Chicago and Colorado, who visited the border regions of Arizona to learn more about the enactment of the draconian anti-immigration law. The film was screened on college campuses across the United States last week to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. For the students in the film, the experience was eye-opening and, in some cases, infuriating as they were privy to the conditions of immigrant communities along the border areas. One of the students who filmed the trip, President L. Davis, remarked-

Getting behind the camera to capture this story of the immigrant Hispanic population of Arizona and the American reaction will remain one of the greatest experiences of my life. One that I believe will help inspire another generation of freedom fighters determined to see freedom and justice prevail.

Youth-led efforts like this documentary and the New York state version of the DREAM Act signal the continued vigor with which advocates are pushing for immigration reform. The bill’s fate in the N.Y. State senate is yet unknown, but supporters can sign the petition to Governor Cuomo to urge him to support S.4179. Meanwhile, films such as ‘A Look Inside SB1070′ will hopefully further raise awareness around the human impact of harsh anti-immigration laws such as SB1070 and help to highlight that fact that with ever-increasing immigrant populations, the call for comprehensive immigration reform simply cannot be ignored.

Watch the film ‘A Look Inside SB1070′ here:

Photo courtesy of news.change.org

A mural in Arizona lightens as race issues get darker

Some months ago, local artists in Prescott, Arizona were commissioned to paint a “Go Green” mural outside Miller Valley Elementary School to promote environmentally friendly transportation. The finished piece featured portraits of four children, with a Latino boy holding a central place, drawn from photographs of children that attended Miller Valley, one of the most ethnically diverse schools in Prescott. But R.E. Wall, the artist that headed the downtown mural project, said that the artists working on the mural were regularly subjected to racial slurs and epithets while they were painting the two large walls located in the middle of one of the town’s most trafficked intersections. Comments such as “you’re desecrating our school,”” Get that n***** off our wall,”” Get the s*** off the wall” were common.

Recently, the school principal Jeff Lane asked the artists to alter the mural by lightening the skin tone of the children depicted in it. While he insisted that his alteration request was purely an aesthetic one related to shading “that made the faces darker than they are,” it is difficult not to attribute his alteration order to the taunts and racial comments that the mural was receiving. Wall said that the principal asked him to make the children’s faces appear “happier and brighter,” but he is convinced that “it is being lightened because of the controversy.”

Prescott City Councilman Steve Blair has led a public campaign on his talk show on a Prescott radio station (KYCA-AM) to remove the mural. Without doubt, Blair’s raving about the mural on his show has added fuel to an already brewing controversy. “Art is in the eye of the beholder, but I say [the mural] looks like graffiti in L.A.,” Blair said. Following that, he mistook the ethnicity of the child at the center of the mural and said on his radio show -

I am not a racist individual, but I will tell you depicting a black guy in the middle of that mural, based upon who’s President of the United States today and based upon the history of this community, when I grew up we had four black families – who I have been very good friends with for years – to depict the biggest picture on that building as a black person, I would have to ask the question, Why?

He finished his rant off saying that diversity is a word he “can’t stand.”

Something very worrying is afoot when it comes to race in Arizona, and it brings to mind a certain new Arizona law, scheduled to go into effect at the end of July, that makes it a crime to be undocumented in the state, and mandates local police to question and detain people who appear “reasonably suspicious” of being undocumented.

The problem is being made worse by the ill-founded justification that is being bandied about for the new racial profiling law. Media personalities like Bill O’Reilly and legislators like Russell Pearce (the sponsor of SB 1070) have popularized the misnomer that laws like these are the only solution to an exploding crime rate in Arizona, which they link to its immigrant population. Bill O’ Reilly’s rhetoric in defense of the new law goes like this-

“The Arizona authorities say we’re desperate. We don’t have the money. Our crime problem is through the roof. Phoenix one of the most dangerous cities in the country. We got to do something.” (May 4, 2010); “So the state of Arizona faced with an overwhelming crime problem, social chaos and a bankrupt treasury had to do something.” (May 6, 2010); “Arizona is  overrun with crime and everything else and people getting slaughtered on their ranches. I mean, it’s insane.” (May 21, 2010)

The folks at FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) have produced a solid list of figures that counter O’ Reilly and prove that the crime wave in Arizona is nothing but racist hype and fear-mongering. In reality, crime rates have been on the decrease in Arizona for many years despite the presence of undocumented immigrants. The city of Phoenix issued a statement saying that in spite of a growing population and challenging economy -

Violent and property crimes in Phoenix continue to drop…The numbers of crimes in 2009 are on track to be the lowest in 15 years…Through November 2009, Phoenix’s violent crime rate has continued to decline, dropping 18 percent over the same period in 2008.

If people like O’ Reilly did their research they would have come across a report released by the Immigration Policy Center that explicitly states that immigrants are, in fact, less likely to commit crime than non-immigrants. According to the 2008 report, crime rates are lowest in states that have a high immigrant population, often making them safer than other places. For example, it notes that El Paso, Texas, a poor city with a large population of undocumented people, is one of the safest cities in the United States. A 2007 University of California Study found that for any ethnic group, the rates of incarceration for young men were consistently lowest for immigrants, regardless of their education or class status.

The good news is that since FAIR circulated their “Stop O’Reilly” petition, he seems to have held back on his false accusations. Unfortunately though, this will not prevent the draconian SB1070 from being implemented on July 29th and with such a law in action that works to generate a fear of local law enforcement in the community, we can probably count on efficient crime solving going from bad to worse. Worst of all the implications of such a law (and the racial profiling that it will encourage) is that incidents such as the one in Prescott will seem less and less outrageous in a culture where the state itself sanctions questioning people based on their perceived appearance.

Photo courtesy of nydailynews.com

Amid Oil Spill Crisis, U.S. Authorities Search for Undocumented Immigrant Cleanup Workers

Talk about misplaced priorities. In the midst of a national crisis over the gargantuan BP oil spill that is destroying the water, marine eco-systems, and coastal livelihoods along the Gulf Coast, Federal immigration officials have decided to focus their resources on checking the immigration status of the people that BP has finally employed to begin cleaning up the massive destruction that the oil is causing along the coast.

Check out this amazing exclusive report co-produced by Feet in Two Worlds (English) and El Diario (Spanish)-

Federal immigration officials have been visiting command centers on the Gulf Coast to check the immigration status of response workers hired by BP and its contractors to clean up the immense oil spill.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Louisiana confirmed that its agents had visited two large command centers—which are staging areas for the response efforts and are sealed off to the public—to verify that the workers there were legal residents.

“We visited just to ensure that people who are legally here can compete for those jobs—those people who are having so many problems,” said Temple H. Black, a spokesman for ICE in Louisiana.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, thousands of Hispanic workers, many of them undocumented, flocked to the region to help in the reconstruction of Louisiana’s coastal towns.  Many stayed, building communities on the outskirts of New Orleans or finding employment outside the city in oil refineries and in the fishing industry.

These Hispanic workers have been accused of taking away jobs from longtime Louisiana residents, and the tension has grown as fishing and tourism jobs dry up, leaving idle workers to compete for jobs on the oil spill clean-up effort.

Black explained that ICE and Border Patrol began to monitor the response efforts shortly after job sites were formed following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that began on April 20 and has yet to be contained.

ICE, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, visited two command centers, one in Venice and the other in Hopedale, twice in May. ICE agents arrived at the staging areas without prior notice, rounded up workers, and asked for documentation of their legal status, according to Black.

The command centers, located in the marshes a few hours east of New Orleans, are among the largest, with hundreds of workers employed at each site.

“We don’t normally go and check people’s papers—we’re mostly focused on transnational gangs, predators, drugs. This was a special circumstance because of the oil spill,” said Black.

“We made an initial visit and a follow-up to make sure they were following the rules,” he said.

“These weren’t raids—they were investigations,” he added.

There were no arrests at either site, according to the ICE spokesman. But he said if undocumented workers had been discovered, they “would have been detained on the spot and taken to Orleans Parish Prison.”

Etanisla Hernandez is a response worker at the Hopedale Command  Center - Photo: Annie Correal

BP and one of the companies that holds a large contract in Hopedale, Oil Mop, did not return calls requesting comment. A high-level employee for another contractor in Hopedale, United States Environmental Services, who did not give her name, said, “I just got a phone call. I heard they were visiting.”

St. Bernard Parish, where the Hopedale site is located, assured that the local government had nothing to do with the checks and had no knowledge of them.

The ICE agents who visited the sites reminded subcontractors of immigration laws and their obligation to use programs including E-verify, an electronic system run by the Department of Homeland Security which checks workers’ immigration status.

An Oil Mop subcontractor called Tamara’s Group has hired more than 100 Hispanic workers from the region to work at the Hopedale site. The owner of Tamara’s Group, Martha Mosquera, said that when ICE came in the first week of May, “they gathered them all in the tents and they asked for their papers.”

One of the workers in this group, a 61-year-old Mexican woman named Cruz Stanaland, rememberes ICE’s visit: “They were civilians, they weren’t wearing uniforms and they were driving in cars that didn’t have the Immigration logo…dark cars with tinted glass.”

Another worker from the same group, Etanlisa Hernández, who is 30 and from the Dominican Republic, said, “There were five or six men. They were very polite.”

Although Mosquera said her company had no problems because all of her employees were legally employed, some pro-immigrant leaders criticized the government’s quickness to enforce immigration requirements during a crisis.

“It’s like, ‘round everybody up and leave the oil on the beach,’” said Darlene Kattan, Director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana. “In a catastrophic situation like this, I think we should be more well-reasoned.”

“People are desperate for jobs,” she added, “And they think that if someone looks like an undocumented immigrant they’re taking the food from their mouth.”

Clarissa Martinez de Castro, Director of Immigration and National Campaigns at the National Council of La Raza, an advocacy group in Washington DC, said, “the clean-up effort is a gargantuan effort and we have to ensure that the crews are working in a way that protects their health and safety, and that should be the priority.” She added, “if ICE thinks that there are bad apple employers, they should go directly to them instead of harassing clean-up crews that we all know are doing a crucial job.”

Despite the visits by ICE, some undocumented workers have been hired by BP contractors. One fisherman from El Salvador, who didn’t want to reveal his name because he was afraid of being deported, has been laying down boom alongside the marshes for a week.

“You’re always afraid Immigration is coming,” he said.

He explained that although he didn’t feel safe doing the clean-up work, he took the risk because the job pays $360 a day. “I came because I have a wife, and kids, I came to give them a better life. My uncle’s family lent me money to come here. Maybe this will help me pay them back.”

Listen this week to NPR’s Latino USA for Annie Correal’s report on the latest from the Gulf Coast.

Photos courtesy of news.feetintwoworlds.org