As 2011 draws to a close, the immigration situation in the U.S. remains a mess. Arizona's infamous SB 1070, which required law-enforcement officials to check immigration status during routine encounters if there was "reasonable suspicion" someone was in the country illegally, sparked a nationwide outcry when it was passed in 2010. But in the past year, lawmakers in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Utah, and South Carolina have followed suit, passing a host of copycat bills. In Alabama, schools are even required to check the immigration status of students, which has resulted in hundreds of Hispanic children being kept home from school.
But there is a quiet backlash taking shape. Across the country, a number of grassroots organizations have recently kicked off awareness campaigns that welcome immigrants.
Uniting NC, a grass-roots group in North Carolina, has raised funds online for billboards all over the state featuring images of smiling immigrants and the headline, “Community, we’ll get there together.”
“Today, Uniting NC is announcing the start of a statewide billboard campaign intended to create a vision of a united, inclusive North Carolina where all people are given a fair chance, no matter where they were born,” said United NC director Kristin Collins at a press conference held in Raleigh on December 13.
In her speech, Collins pointed out the tendency for citizens to scapegoat immigrants in difficult economic times and told the audience that anti-immigration legislation doesn't just hurt immigrants—it hurts the whole community.
“We don’t want to see North Carolina go down the same path [as places like Alabama]. This holiday season, let’s heed the instructions in all faiths to welcome the stranger and to treat our neighbors with kindness and respect.”
Uniting NC is just one of 19 affiliated groups throughout the United States under the grassroots umbrella organization Welcoming America, founded in Atlanta in 2007. Felicia Escobar, Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Domestic Policy Council, recently wrote about Welcoming America on the White House website:
By connecting immigrants and U.S. born residents, and by highlighting local contributions made by immigrants, Welcoming America is transforming relationships in these communities and working with others, including community leaders, practitioners, and academics to support strategies that engage all Americans in understanding and promoting more integrated communities.
Religious leaders are well represented among the ranks of Welcoming America and other immigrant-advocacy groups, which could be the key to opening the hearts of conservative voters. Two weeks ago, 33 Hispanic/Latino Catholic Bishops of the United States published an open letter welcoming immigrants into the Church:
The economic crisis has had an impact on the entire U.S. community. Regretfully, some in reaction to this environment of uncertainty show disdain for immigrants and even blame them for the crisis. We will not find a solution to our problems by sowing hatred. We will find the solution by sowing a sense of solidarity among all workers and co-workers—immigrants and citizens—who live together in the United States.
The same week, Catholic nuns from 10 religious communities in Iowa erected billboards in preparation for the January 3 Republican caucuses. The billboards contain biblical verses such as Matthew 25:35—“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”—but with word “stranger” replaced with “immigrant.” The campaign is running in Des Moines, Dubuque, Cedar Rapids, Sioux City, Clinton and the Quad Cities and includes prayer services to accompany the awareness campaign.
Whether they’re motivated by faith or simply a sense of right and wrong, grassroots movements have proven they can enact change. Take Citizens for Arizona, which ousted Russell Pearce, president of the Arizona state senate and author of the state’s infamous SB 1070. That Pearce could be run out of town by an unknown politician—earning him the honor of becoming the first sitting Senate president in the nation to lose a recall election—is proof that even in conservative Arizona, people have had enough.
Grass-roots action mirrors a more broad response from the federal government. The Department of Justice (DOJ) recently released a report accusing the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office of racially profiling Hispanics. U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel recently blocked key parts of an immigration bill in South Carolina that were set to go into effect January 1, enjoining sections of the law that would require immigrants to carry their registration documents and make it a crime to harbor or transport an illegal immigrant. Since the South Carolina law was modeled after Arizona SB 1070, which is being considered by the Supreme Court this coming term, Gergel’s decision could factor in the Court's review. Immigrant-rights advocates have filed similar suits in Georgia, Utah, Indiana, and Alabama, and have been successful in stopping the most draconian provisions of these anti-immigration bills from going into effect.
Besides marginalizing undocumented immigrants and subjecting minorities to racial profiling, the raft of anti-immigration laws have had larger, more devastating effects on states' economies. In Alabama, workers fled in the middle of the night when HB 56 was upheld in a federal court in October. Acres of crops sat rotting on the vines for lack of manpower to pick them.
"Sadly, this law is still wreaking havoc across [Alabama], creating a humanitarian crisis," said Mary Bauer, legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center . Thanks to the efforts of grassroots publicity campaigns, Americans are slowly waking up to the devastating effects of living in communities overrun by fear and paranoia.
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