Racist Arizona Immigration Law Earns It First Lawsuit -- And It's From a Pastor
ANNISTON, Ala— It had not been but a few hours following federal Judge Susan Lovelace Blackburn’s September 26 approval of HB56, which criminalizes undocumented immigrants, when Manuel Hernández heard the siren.
He had just left a gas station near the town of Warrior, Alabama, in a rural area when an undercover detective detained him.
"They never said why they stopped us," said Hernández, who is pastor of the Prayer Center for All Nations in Aniston, Alabama and is also undocumented.
Several days since the passage of HB 56 - the toughest law against undocumented immigrants in the country - police departments in the state of Alabama had not yet received training on how to enforce the law, leaving some departments to come up with their own interpretation.
Hernández, a 36-year-old from Puebla, Mexico could become the first person to file a lawsuit claiming his civil rights were violated in connection with HB 56.
"I think it was racism, for being Hispanic," said the pastor, who is talking with lawyers to file a legal appeal after being deprived of his liberty.
Hernández said that as soon the detective stopped him, he asked for his documentation, obviously doubting his legal status in the country.
The pastor showed his Mexican passport and his Mexican Consular ID card, as well as a card issued by the American Association of Chaplains, which he uses to identify himself as a pastor during his visits to hospitals and prisons.
The detective questioned the validity of all his documents, the pastor said. The officer also told Hernandez that he was committing a crime for having a chaplain identification cared with the state’s official seal.
"[The officer] accused him of not being a pastor," said Fernando Rodriguez, who is a pastor at a different church, the House of Prayer Church in Albertville, Alabama, who had been traveling with Hernandez at the time. The officer also questioned Rodriguez, a native of Honduras, on his immigration status but fortunately he had his green card.
Hernández ,however, was arrested on charges of carrying identification with the Alabama state seal and spent several days in a Warrior, Alabama jail where he claims he was discriminated against for being Hispanic.
"I asked for a Spanish [language] Bible to pray, and they did not want to give me one," Hernández said. He also heard detention officials making comments behind his back thinking he didn’t speak English. "He is illegal and must be treated as an illegal," he remembers hearing.
La Opinión intended to speak with the Warrior police chief, but they did not respond to several requests. A call inquiring about the charges against Hernández was transferred to the same detective who arrested him, and that detective refused to give his name "because I do not want to appear in the newspaper."
"It has nothing to do with the new immigration law. It has to do with the fact that he was driving at an excessive speed," the detective said, in resoponse to the accusation that he had racially profiled Hernández.
"In my opinion, all of this immigration (stuff) is being exaggerated," he said.
Pastor Rodriguez, who was traveling with the detained, asked why Hernandez wasn’t just given a speeding ticket, if the issue had in fact been excessive speed.
The detective said it was a felony to use the state seal or official seal on an unofficial piece of identification. However, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, where the town of Warrior is located, said their interpretation of that state law was different.
The local statute indicates that it is a felony if the person uses it as commercial identification or tries to pass off the identification as a document issued by the State Department of Public Safety.
“The majority of chaplains carry that badge, and it’s not illegal to do so," said Norma Hernández, who represents the American Chaplains Association and has distributed several of these identification badges. "This is the first case where this (logic) has been presented."
Hernández thought he would never see his family because the detective told him that he would be sent to Mexico.
"You think of the worst because this law has passed," says Jobita, Hernández's wife and mother of their four children.
But fate held another chance for Hernández; Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities let him out without bail, and now Hernández will wait to be given a date to appear in immigration court.
The arrest has reinforced fears among the immigrant community in the area, said Rodriguez.
"I'm upset, because here in Alabama there is a church on every block and you're supposed to be a good Samaritan," Rodriguez said. "How can you have this combination of so many churches and so much hatred?"
The release of Hernández, however, gave many in the community a bit of hope.
"Yes, we were concerned but we knew he was going to be released," said Luz Elena de la Cruz, an immigrant from Veracruz, Mexico who is part of Hernández’s congregation of 70 members. "This has made us stronger."
Gillian Eva, 46, who is white and has been attending Hernández’s church for 2 years, said it was a wake up call.
"I think it’s time to recognize that we use these people and then we toss them out when we no longer need them,” she said.
This was not the first time that Hernández was faced with a deportation. In 1997 he was deported to Mexico after a raid at his worksite. He attributes his release to prayer and a miracle from God. ICE did not provide information regarding particular cases for privacy reasons and nor did they answer what priority arrests under HB56 would receive.
"The immigration jails are operating at their maximum capacity. And the state (prisons) are at 190 percent capacity," said Zayne Smith, director of immigration policy at the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice
Smith said that because of this, ICE could focus more on investing resources in locating violent criminals instead of immigrants whose only offense is to be in the country without documentation.
"This law is very dangerous because there are officers who have no training who are now immigration officers," said Smith.
Hernández said he was not afraid to share his story. "I'm sure that this is happening in many other places," the pastor said.