On April 27, 2011, 62 killer tornadoes ripped through Alabama, destroying homes, lives, and entire communities. Two weeks later, another disaster struck Alabama — HB56, the most draconian anti-immigrant law passed by any state in the nation. Instead of working to provide disaster relief for a stricken people, Alabama legislators fulfilled campaign promises to criminalize undocumented immigrants for simply setting foot in Alabama. Their intent was to make every aspect of immigrants’ lives so miserable that they would self-deport.
The politicians far underestimated the heart and spine of Alabama’s faith leaders. A new book published by Greater Birmingham Ministries, Love Has No Borders, is a testament to how faith leaders united with immigrants to challenge the nation’s most hostile anti-immigrant legislation. Our experience is critical to the current national debate on comprehensive immigration reform and challenges faith leaders anywhere to step up, speak up, and stand with immigrant communities in their struggle.
HB56 did everything its authors intended. It hurt undocumented immigrants where they lived, worked, worshiped, prayed, and went to school. HB56 created mass confusion and outright terror for people without papers in Alabama. Most immigrant families were faced with shattering decisions. Should they split their families up, leaving those who were citizens in Alabama and the rest fleeing to relative safety somewhere else? Or should they stay together in this place they call home, living in constant fear that a broken headlight or a roadblock would lead to detention and deportation?
Hundreds of clergy united with immigrants against any bill that would fan the fires of racial division, separate families, and assault human dignity. Bishops sued the State of Alabama. Faith leaders organized rallies and marches attended by thousands of people. Congregations conducted workshops about hospitality and immigration justice. Clergy held press conferences. Laity and clergy wrote letters to newspapers. Faith leaders met with legislators. Faith groups ran television ads. Small groups engaged in sit-ins in the Capitol building in Montgomery.
One afternoon, 80 people stood in a circle outside a church in Northport, Ala., hands clasped. Latino, black, white were invited to share their vision for a beautiful Alabama. Voices rang out. Dignity, dignidad. Life without fear, vivir sin miedo. Peace, paz. Faith, fé. Repeal of HB56, derogación de la HB56. No more tearing families apart, no más familias destrozadas. Courage, valor.
In a moment of quiet, a Latina child called out, Roll Tide! Everyone laughed, but we all felt the painful irony. That’s just how deeply rooted in Alabama culture our immigrant neighbors are, and yet the intent of Alabama’s immigration law is to force them to leave or to live in fear.
Roll Tide? The tide is surely turning in Alabama and it won’t be turned back. A new people are emerging — brown, black and white — in Alabama, of all places. HB56 brought us together. It’s a miracle.
It is no secret that churches are often the institutions in society most resistant to change. It is no secret that clergy often fear taking stands on controversial issues. We hope that this compelling visual and written testimony will invite and encourage more people of faith to take the risk of standing with people who are most threatened and vulnerable in our society.
Love Has No Borders is the witness of faith leaders in Alabama: when we stood up, spoke out, marched with our immigrant neighbors, and defied manmade barriers that divided us, real change began to take place. People of faith in Alabama drew a new line in the sand, guided by their unshakeable belief that love has no borders.
You can purchase Love Has No Borders from Greater Birmingham Ministries at gbm.org .
Rev. Angie Wright is the Associate Director for Greater Birmingham Ministries.