That’s what I keep asking myself as I scan the headlines and news stories coming out of the state now known as home to the harshest immigration law in the country. That’s what I keep wondering as I read descriptions of children vanishing from Alabama schools, of tearful mothers pulling little ones out of class, of the hundreds of empty desks in districts across the state.
How many mothers are weeping? How many are hiding in fear or slipping silently across state lines—searching yet again for safe harbor, searching yet again for a place that offers promise instead of punishment?
I think of those mothers—driven first from their own homelands by the impulse to open the door to a brighter life for their children, and driven away now by a law that seeks to lock that door and shatter the light.
That law, the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, upheld last week by a federal judge, authorizes law enforcement officials to check a person’s immigration status during routine arrests or traffic offenses and requires schools to check the citizenship status of any student who enrolls after Sept. 1.
The day after the ruling, schools were besieged by parents, frightened and crying as they withdrew their children from classes. Hundreds of other children simply did not show up for school.
The Obama administration is appealing the decision, but the state’s Republican Gov. Robert Bentley stood firm, saying: “I will continue to fight at every turn to defend this law against any and all challenges.”
THIS ISSUE IS PERSONAL, FOR SO MANY MILLIONS
I gulp down those words and try to understand just what the governor is defending, just who is he so afraid of. But I can’t. I picture immigrants working in fields, factories and front yards, and I don’t see invaders or interlopers. I don’t see criminals out to steal American jobs or live off public welfare.
Instead, I see my own mother, stepping off a plane many decades ago, her two small daughters in tow, her heart pounding with anticipation.
Still in her early 20’s, she had scarcely set foot outside her small hometown in Ecuador, let alone travelled outside its borders. Everything she spotted was new to her, even the pay phones at the airport. Every step she took was carrying her farther away from all that was familiar, all that was safe.
How scared she must have been, how much courage it must have taken to walk headlong into so many unknowns.
But that young mother kept going. Because she and my father believed that hard work would reap rewards here. Because she sensed that this strange, vast country held a golden sheen of opportunity. Because she would forfeit anything for her children’s future.
We were lucky. We came to the United States with green cards, during a gap of time when immigrants were not reviled or demonized. No one turned us away from school or denied us a path to college. No one stopped my two sisters from earning Ph.D’s and becoming college professors; no one stopped me from graduating from New York University and going on to work at the Boston Globe, Miami Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer and the Associated Press.
We never had to live in the shadows, or tremble in fear of stepping inside a schoolroom. My parents’ sweat and sacrifice and sueños paid off. I think of how they saw their daughters achieve the American Dream, how they watched us win awards and honors and accolades.
Then I think of all the families who are forced to live in the shadows, whose joys and journeys have suddenly been thwarted, whose hopes have been met with hostility. All the children clutching backpacks and paper bag lunches, spinning visions of their futures in their heads. All the mothers working in factories, cleaning houses, harvesting vegetables, toiling in restaurants, raising other people’s children, vacuuming office buildings, running nursing homes.
ROSA PARKS, MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. AND ALABAMA
Then my thoughts turn again to the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act and I wince at the irony that this law, which threatens the equality and education of so many, has been concocted in Alabama—a state inextricably tied to the Civil Rights movement.
It was there that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, lighting the fuse that would lead to the Montgomery bus boycott. It was there that Martin Luther King Jr. spent nine days in a Birmingham jail for opposing segregation. It was there that police officers wielded water hoses and German shepherds against peaceful protesters.
It was there that hundreds of ordinary people braved billy clubs and tear gas and marched from Selma to Montgomery to focus the nation’s attention on voter registration inequities.
Today, Alabama is again the vortex of a fight against injustice. It is again a state where a piece of paper can mean the difference between education and ignorance. It is again a place where people are being judged by the color of their skin.
It is again the setting for bigotry sanctioned by the courts and brandished like a banner by politicians.
I think of all the mothers and fathers I’ve interviewed over the years, humble people worn out from mind-numbing, bone-crushing work, but with eyes illuminated by a gleam of pride in their children.
I think of all the parents who have trusted their children to my care as a teacher, all the students I’ve met and taught and tangled with, all of my fellow teachers who don’t care where their students were born, but care deeply about what they learn.
And it sears my soul to think of the lives that will be shuttered in darkness because of this “citizen protection” law and others like it.
Whose child is not worth protecting? Whose child are we supposed to sacrifice?
The girl whose binders glisten with swirling letters, neatly-penned notes, and crisp colored tabs? The boy whose earring and baggy pants belie the poet burning inside? The young man who went on to earn a Pulitzer Prize for public service reporting? The young woman who graduated from college with honors and now works at a nonprofit helping those who can’t help themselves?
Had my circumstances been different, had I come to this country now, without a green card, without my papers, but with all the same desires and aspirations and talent, would I be one of the children being sacrificed in the name of xenophobia?
I think again of my mother. Would she now be weeping?
With my heart keening, I wonder how a country once built on golden dreams can stand by and watch as the dreams of so many are condemned to rust and ruin.
And I remember a line penned in a Birmingham, Alabama, jail cell 48 years ago: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”