2 Big Lies About Immigration Disproved in One Alabama Town
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Russellville is a small town in northwest Alabama, the kind of place that most people who grew up an hour’s drive away don’t even know exists. Even by Alabama standards, folks in Russellville take their football seriously. Though the town only has about 10,000 residents, a few years ago its high school became the first in the state to purchase a Jumbotron video screen, at a cost of more than a quarter million dollars.
As with many small towns, when change comes to Russellville it usually comes slow: schools here didn’t integrate until the late 1960s, and until a few months ago the sale of alcohol was prohibited. But in 1989, the construction of a poultry plant unwittingly set Russellville on a course of rapid transformation. Within a few years the area became a magnet for immigrants looking to settle down and raise a family after years of laboring in the tomato fields of Florida.
Today, Franklin County—of which Russellville is the county seat—has the highest percentage of Latinos in the state, primarily a mix of Mexicans and Guatemalans. According to the Census Bureau, Latinos make up 14.9 percent of the county’s population, though the real number is undoubtedly much higher, as undocumented communities are regularly undercounted.
Along with Russellville, the entire state of Alabama has seen a tremendous increase in Latino residents, whose numbers have doubled in the last decade. This growth has in turn generated a backlash from politicians seeking to build their careers upon the backs of undocumented immigrants. In June, Republican Gov. Robert Bentley made history by signing into law what the harshest anti-immigrant bill in the nation. Inspired by Arizona’s SB1070, the bill permits law enforcement to detain people they suspect to be undocumented, allows the state to revoke the business licenses of companies found to be employing unauthorized workers, and makes it a crime to transport someone known to be undocumented. Finally, and most controversially, it forces schools to determine the citizenship status of its students.
The Justice Department has called the law unconstitutional—because it preempts federal authority to regulate immigration, among other reasons—and filed suit against the state earlier this month. A federal judge heard initial arguments in the case on Wednesday. The court will have to move quickly in deciding whether to allow the law to move forward; it takes effect on Sept. 1.
At the bill’s signing ceremony, Bentley was triumphant. “I campaigned for the toughest immigration laws, and I’m proud of the legislature for working tirelessly to create the strongest immigration bill in the country,” he said. Other Alabama lawmakers were similarly enthusiastic—and some were downright unhinged. Rep. Mo Brooks, who represents an area near Russellville, has now twice called for doing “anything short of shooting” undocumented immigrants. That’s scary talk anywhere, but particularly in a state with Alabama’s history of racial violence (incidentally, one of Brooks’ district offices is located on George Wallace Boulevard).
From a distance—the perspective from which immigration is too often discussed—Russellville can seem like an apt illustration of why Alabama should crack down on immigrants. The area is poor and suffers from chronic rates of high unemployment. The county’s largest employer is the poultry plant; while many American citizens are without work, hundreds of immigrants, some certainly undocumented, are employed at the plant. This fact is to many an outrage, and it is the sort of thing Rep. Brooks cited to justify his “by any means necessary” strategy of eliminating the brown menace.
As Alabama’s new law attests, politicians around the country are also beginning to zero in on schools. They are convinced that immigrants are overwhelming local educational institutions. In Russellville, it’s certainly impossible to miss the dramatic change in student demographics. Twenty years ago there were three Latino students in the entire district. Now, more than one-third of the student body is Latino. At lower grades the rate is even higher, with 44 percent of kindergartners speaking Spanish or a Mayan dialect as their first language. Most of these children enter school unable to speak English.