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Book Review: Kindness and a “Harsh” Alabama Immigration Law

‘Love Has No Borders’ compiles the faith community’s responses to HB 56, including sermons, letters to the editor, public testimony, prayers and blog posts.

“[T]here’s no question that I am now engaging in activities banned by HB 56, and I plan to continue. I give aid and comfort to people I’m pretty sure are undocumented. I don’t ask and I don’t tell, but statistics being what they are, it’s highly likely that the people who need my help are the kind that enter this country by walking across a desert.

… Am I aiding and abetting, harboring and transporting? Lord, I hope so. I’m taking Matthew 25: 34-40 seriously. When meeting the physical and social needs of the “least of these” becomes an act of civil disobedience, I must disobey.”

— Pamela H. Long, professor at Auburn University Montgomery, in Love Has No Borders

In June 2011, when Alabama legislators passed House Bill 56, something as simple as offering a meal or a ride to an undocumented immigrant became a criminal act. Love Has No Borders shows, in words and photographs, how leaders of Alabama’s faith communities responded to the passage of what they describe as “the most draconian anti-immigrant law passed by any state in the nation.”

HB 56 – titled the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act – gave police in Alabama the right to check the immigration status of any person they suspected of being an undocumented immigrant; criminalized transporting an undocumented immigrant; required public schools to check their students’ immigration status; banned undocumented immigrants from receiving any public benefits and from engaging in “business transactions” with the state – including applying for driver’s licenses and license plate tags; and outlawed any contract with an undocumented immigrant.

The impact of HB 56 on undocumented immigrants in Alabama was swift: As Love Has No Borders reports: “Many families disappeared overnight; thriving churches became virtually empty in a week’s time.” And in the fall, several Alabama school districts reported a significant drop in the number of Latino children attending public schools.

Faith leaders in the state rose up to protest the injustice of the new legislation. Clergy organized workshops to educate their members about HB 56 and immigration reform and organized rallies and candlelight marches to voice their outrage. Religious leaders testified in the Alabama state Legislature. Later, several committed activists engaged in civil disobedience – blocking the entrance to the Alabama state Senate chamber – and were arrested.

Love Has No Borders – a remarkable historical document – compiles the faith community’s responses to HB 56, including sermons, letters to the editor, public testimony, prayers (including one directed to state legislators) and blog posts. Children’s letters are side-by-side with editorials published in Alabama’s largest newspapers. The overarching message – from many different voices – is simple: These people are my neighbors, and if you hurt them, you hurt me.

The collected writings point out that Alabama’s legislators are asking the faith community to act in a way counter to the teachings of their respective religious beliefs. Noting that the Bible, for example, calls on people to love their neighbor and to care for the least among their communities, they ask why the state Legislature has now made it illegal to do just that.

One of the most moving pieces comes from Rabbi Jonathan Miller, Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, who draws a direct line from the purging of Spanish Jews during the 15th century to HB 56: “In our own minds, 1492 might well be ancient history. But today, the political leadership in Alabama has passed a law putting so much pressure and fear on immigrants and their families that soon history will be able to speak about the exiles of Alabama.”

He also laments for the children growing up in the state, invoking the memory of the Jim Crow era in Alabama: “Another generation of children will grow up ashamed once again that we raised them in an Alabama that knows perfectly well how to divide people and not unite them.”

Because the writers are faith leaders, their writing, naturally, cites specific Bible verses and invokes Biblical parables to call for fair treatment of immigrants. Those familiar with religious texts will find the language welcoming and instructive. However, just as the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other religious leaders of the civil rights era resonated with all Americans, a religious background is not necessary to appreciate the power of Love Has No Borders.

Had Love Has No Borders been a novel, the ending could have been triumphant: The Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act would have been repealed and anti-immigrant politicians driven from office in a popular uprising. The actual ending is less clear. Although the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down many provisions of HB 56 in August 2012, several of the most onerous provisions remain.

Love Has No Borders is a true tale, however, of solidarity. When the rights of Alabama’s immigrants – documented and undocumented – were abridged by legislators, many faith leaders and community members across Alabama proclaimed they would stand beside their neighbors – risking arrest, public backlash and even physical harm. By attempting to divide Alabama’s residents, the supporters of HB 56 instead inspired many Alabamians to take a courageous stand in support of their immigrant brothers and sisters.