What Would Heschel and King Do? Understanding the Xenophobic Measure of the Alabama Law

This article was originally posted in the Forward.

By  Gideon Aronoff and Jane Ramsey

If Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel were alive today,  they would surely be standing arm in arm, condemning Alabama’s new  anti-immigrant law.

Under Alabama’s new law, House Bill 56, local law enforcement officers are  required to obtain proof of legal status from anyone whom they stop and “suspect” is in the country illegally. In other words, an undocumented immigrant  can now be arrested and held without bond if he or she cannot validate  citizenship during a routine traffic stop.

Additionally, Alabama’s new immigration law prohibits entering into contracts  and government business transactions with undocumented immigrants, a provision  that already has led to households being deprived of basic public utilities,  like water supply and sewer service. Immigrant workers — documented and  undocumented — are fleeing the state because they or their family members do not  have proper documentation and they fear they will be jailed.

Anyone suspected of being undocumented could potentially become a target of  investigation and harassment. Entire communities are living in fear.

Not surprisingly, civil rights issues have arisen in the wake of the new law:  Children are being bullied, parents are withdrawing their children from schools  and immigrants — both documented and undocumented — are living in fear of  run-ins with local law officers. In fact, the first person arrested under  Alabama’s immigration law proved to have proper documentation.

Cineo Gonzales — a legal immigrant of 10 years who lives in Birmingham — reports that shortly after HB 56 went into effect, his first-grader daughter was  given a “know-your-rights” document for targets of the new law, outlining  recommendations for encounters with law enforcement. Although Gonzales is a  legal immigrant and his daughter was born in Alabama, school officials singled  out the child because she is of Latino descent, saying that the documents were  given to “all children who aren’t from here.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Birmingham, reports that more than  3,000 calls have poured in to its hotline from immigrants affected by the law.  Their vulnerability is not something that America’s government takes lightly — and rightfully so. Concerned about civil rights and liberties violations, the  U.S. Department of Justice has put staff on the ground to monitor implementation  of the law, and DOJ has also set up a hotline to collect reports of rights  violations.

Throughout our history, Jews have been considered strangers and outsiders in  their communities, and we know too well the pain of living in fear. We know that  racial profiling incites feelings of helplessness, frustration, anxiety and  anger for innocent victims.

In addition, racial profiling is ineffective and harmful as a law enforcement  tool. If there is a perception that calling the police may lead to deportation,  police may find undocumented people and their family members hesitant to seek  protection, report crimes committed against them or serve as witnesses. The  Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence, for example, reported a decrease in  calls for help. This the coalition attributes to Arizona’s immigration law,  Senate Bill 1070, which “served to generate a culture of fear within minority  communities.” Rather than making communities more secure, immigration laws like  those that have passed in Arizona and Alabama do little more than drive a wedge  between local law enforcement authorities and the communities they are entrusted  to protect.

In the words of King.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice  everywhere.”

We must unite with our friends and neighbors to speak out for justice. We  gain inspiration and courage to do so from ordinary citizens like Steve  Dubrinsky, who did not back down from his support for undocumented immigrants  when he received threats of a boycott of his Jewish deli in Birmingham.

Acts such as his are particularly symbolic, coming in the Deep South 50 years  after Jews and blacks banded together to defeat institutionalized racism. The  civil rights of documented and undocumented immigrants deserve no less attention  from coalitions of the brave than did that earlier historic fight.

As a nation founded by and for immigrants, we must provide a hospitable legal  framework for today’s immigrants to arrive and integrate. As Americans and Jews,  we must once again form strategic alliances to demand that our elected officials  in Washington prioritize the reforming our immigration system.

The iconic photo of Heschel and King marching together in Alabama has been an  enduring symbol for black-Jewish relations. But it is also a powerful reminder  that wherever injustice exists, we must join together and defeat it. Heschel and  King would want us to do nothing less to fight for the victims of the inhumane  Alabama law.

Gideon Aronoff is the president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid  Society, the international migration agency of the American Jewish community;  Jane Ramsey is the executive director of the Chicago-based Jewish Council on  Urban Affairs, which combats poverty, racism and anti-Semitism in partnership  with Chicago’s diverse communities.

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