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Ala. Immigration Law Attracts Washington's Attention


Pressure is mounting against Alabama's immigration law, known as the toughest in the nation. Last night, nearly 3,000 immigrants and supporters converged on a church with strong ties to the civil rights movement. As Tanya Ott from member station WBHM in Birmingham reports, they heard from Democratic members of Congress who vow to get the law repealed.

TANYA OTT, BYLINE: They could hardly pick a more historic place to hold the rally. The 16th Street Baptist Church, where, almost a half century ago, a bomb exploded, killing four young black girls. Tonight, though, the sanctuary explodes with cheers.

GROUP: (Chanting) U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A...

OTT: It's the kick off for a national campaign to repeal HB 56. The law criminalizes almost every daily action of undocumented immigrants. They can't work. They can't rent an apartment. They can't be in Alabama. The sound is victorious, but under the bravado there's fear. Ten-year-old Diane is here with her parents and younger brother. Diane was born in the U.S., but her parents are undocumented.

DIANE: When I see the police I want to cry because I'm scared because I don't want my parents to go away.

OTT: Deacon Silverio Rubio of St. Theresa's Catholic Church says it's a legitimate concern, but he urges his congregants to stay in Alabama.

DEACON SILVERIO RUBIO: I tell them don't leave. Don't be cowards. You're not criminals. Just face the devil here. We have to ban together and repeal the law.

OTT: There's movement on that front. Earlier in the day, ten Democratic members of Congress spent hours listening to immigrants talk about hardships under the law. They also heard from local government officials who say they don't have the resources to enforce it. Illinois Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez is helping lead the effort to repeal HB 56.

REPRESENTATIVE LUIS GUTIERREZ: We don't need a hodgepodge of 50 different immigration policies in 50 states. We need an immigration policy that does justice and fairness to the rich history of immigrants here in the United States of America.

OTT: But Republicans in Congress, including Alabama's Mo Brooks, say the federal government hasn't done enough to stop illegal immigration.

REPRESENTATIVE MO BROOKS: If we had strong illegal aliens laws on the federal government books and those laws were enforced, the state of Alabama would not have to act.

OTT: Republicans say the law is necessary to protect jobs. They point to new data that shows an improved job picture since the law went into effect. But economists warn it could just be an uptick in seasonal hiring.

Some Republican state lawmakers who voted for HB 56 concede there are problems with it. State Senator Gerald Dial says the bill came to lawmakers late in the session, near the end of a six hour filibuster, and they didn't have enough time to study it.

STATE SENATOR GERALD DIAL: And we were kind of caught in a box. We either vote for it or we vote against it. If we voted against it, it looked like we were supporting illegal immigrants into our state. So we voted for it. I made some mistakes and I'm going to try to correct those.

OTT: Dial insists, though, the changes he wants to make will not roll back restrictions on undocumented immigrants. One Democratic state lawmaker has drafted legislation to repeal the law. But there's evidence to suggest that won't sit well with Alabamians. A recent survey of likely voters found three-quarters say the law should be left as is or revised. The legislature might not have the final say. A federal lawsuit against HB 56 is currently being considered by an appeals court.

For NPR News, I'm Tanya Ott in Birmingham, Alabama.


WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tanya Ott