Love Has No Borders: How Faith Leaders Resisted Alabama’s Harsh Immigration Law

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 Bordersis 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?

Alabama Pastor's Take on Latest Anti-Immigrant Legislation

Photo by Kathryn Kendrick, Greater Birmingham Ministries

HB 658 protest at the Alabama state house. Photo by Kathryn Kendrick, Greater Birmingham Ministries

Here we are today, caught in an economic slump, finding ways to once again dehumanize those that we encouraged to come. The very people who have harvested our food, built our homes and served us over the past 30-plus years, we now declare criminals.

In my beloved Alabama, where 3 percent of the population (largely Hispanic) is estimated to be undocumented, our state government has created the harshest and most egregious anti-immigrant laws in the country. Rep. Micky Hammon and Sen. Scott Beason, sponsors and writers of HB56, stated that these laws would create an atmosphere of “self deportation.” I can only wonder how Native Americans might feel about that concept.

HB56 — passed by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Robert Bentley in June 2011 — has now been replaced by HB658. The stated purpose of the new legislation was to simplify HB56 and make enforcement less complicated. In the process, stricter guidelines and harsher treatment were incorporated while simplification was ignored.

I am compelled to look at this law as a child of God within the Christian faith, accepting that all people in this world are my brothers and sisters, created by the God who breathed life into me and into them, making us one family.

Immigration: Joel Osteen Gets Political

Joel Osteen brought his evangelistic revival to Nationals Park in Washington, DC last month. Photo by Getty Images.

In an uncharacteristic move, televangelist and bestselling author Joel Osteen, senior pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, stepped into the political arena briefly to talk about Alabama's House Bill 56, the strictest anti-illegal immigration legislation in the nation.

Osteen, who unlike many of his television compatriots, normally eschews entering into the political fray,  was in Alabama last week for an event and during an interview with a local television station, a reporter asked him about having to choose between faith and breaking civil laws, in the context of HB56, which would make it illegal for undocumental immigrants to receive any public benefits at the state or local level, attend publicly-owned colleges or universities, transport, harbor, employ or rent property to undocumented immigrants in Alabama.



Faith Leaders Target Alabama's Immigration Bill With Ad

Yesterday, a diverse group of faith leaders in Alabama released a television ad targeting Alabama's HB 56 -- the worst anti-immigrant law in the country.

The 30-second ad features Rev. Steve Jones, senior pastor at Southside Baptist Church in Birmingham.

''We believe in reaching out and ministering to our community. Yet under Alabama's immigration law, we could be prosecuted for following God's call to be good Samaritans,” Jones says in the ad.


G92, Immigration Reform, and a Letter from a Birmingham Jail

1962. Photo by Ernst Haas/Getty Images.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., surrounded by supporters at a rally in Birmingham, 1962. Photo by Ernst Haas/Getty Images.

February was Black History Month. I ended it by pressing for immigration reform in the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.

When I landed in Birmingham, Alabama two weeks ago, it struck me that I was on my way to Samford University — the flagship University of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). It struck me that the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest evangelical denomination in the country and among the most conservative. It struck me that Alabama used to boast that it had the harshest Jim Crow laws and law enforcement during the Civil Rights era. Now it boasts the harshest anti-immigrant law in the nation.

Passed into law on June 9, 2011, HB56 criminalizes Alabamans’ daily associations with immigrants who cannot prove their legal status. Giving an undocumented immigrant a ride can result in criminal arrest. The legislation also prohibits all businesses (including schools, the water company, and the telephone company among others) from conducting business transactions on any level with anyone who cannot prove their legal status. Tens of thousands of Latino families fled Alabama within weeks of the law’s passage. Businesses closed, schools lost huge percentages of their students, and vegetables were left to rot in the fields.

I was in Birmingham to speak at the G92 South Conference, a one-day conference for students and pastors hosted on Samford’s sprawling campus. G92 is a reference to the 92 times the Hebrew word Ger is used in the Bible. Ger means stranger or sojourner. The conference began last autumn at Cedarville University in Ohio. It is now being replicated on Christian college campuses across the country. Samford University was the second campus to agree to host the conference.

Welcoming the Stranger: Immigration and G92

Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/Washington Post via Getty Images.

Immigrant families are fleeing Alabama in the wake of the new law. Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/Washington Post via Getty Images.

Whenever possible, I plan my Saturday errands such that I’ll be able catch part of “This American Life” on public radio as I drive and I’ve often found myself sitting in the grocery store parking lot to hear the end of a story. 

One recent Saturday, the show’s theme — which ties together each of its non-fiction stories — was the biblical truism that “you reap what you sow” (Galatians 6:7), and most of the program was dedicated to examining the consequences — intended and otherwise — of Alabama’s controversial, toughest-in-the-nation immigration law, HB 56, which passed last June. 

Whether what is happening in Alabama as a result of this law — and, as the program reveals, a great deal is happening, even if most of us outside of the state aren’t paying attention — was the intention of the bill’s authors and supporters is not entirely clear. What is clear, from a Christian perspective, is that the effects are devastating. 

What most saddened me in the program was the statement of a young undocumented woman named Gabriella that, since the passage of HB 56, she finds herself unwelcome everywhere. “Even in the church,” she says, “you find people that… don't want to talk at you. And they don't want to give the peace to you.”