BY MIKE THOMASON / CONTRIBUTING WRITER
As was said at another point in our history, “these are the times that try men’s souls,” indeed. “Here We May Rest: Alabama Immigrants in the Age of HB 56” been published at a perfect time, as it examines the history of attitudes about immigrants and immigration in Alabama, with an emphasis on recent decades. The story it tells is riveting and painful but very well researched and told. It will challenge many readers whose views are expressed in the song “Sweet Home Alabama,” and surprise others, as you cannot believe much of the story really happened. Others will see it as an accurate description of the challenges recent immigrants have faced, and still face in this state.
The author is not a historian, though she is a recent immigrant herself. She has done impressive archival research, and conducted interviews with politicians and many immigrants, who tell their stories in compelling fashion.
Giagnoni teaches at Auburn University and was born and grew up in, and still returns to, her native Tuscany, Italy. She married an Alabamian and they have two small children. She says she feels welcomed and at home in Alabama, but understands the immigrants’ experience, especially those who lack proper documents — or, as many say, are “undocumented aliens.”
In 2011 she began her investigation of immigrants in Alabama, and almost at once confronted House Bill 56. Passed in that year under the leadership of just-elected Gov. Robert Bentley, HB 56 was a draconian law that criminalized being undocumented or even associating with those who were. Giving a lift to someone without papers was a criminal offense.
The list of felonies the bill enacted seemed almost endless. Its intent was to force the undocumented to flee the state, or “self-deport.” The Latino community was the target and many did flee, despite having lived here for years. After four years a series of court decisions virtually repealed the law, but it had largely done its job.
Slowly Latinos filtered back into the state but were under no illusions about the official attitudes they faced. However, they did fight against HB 56 and its successor, HB 658, forming organizations and protests, such as “The March for Immigration Reform” and the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice. They found the overwhelming majority of Alabamians did not understand HB 56 or HB 658.
As Giagnoni discovered, beyond a few rabble-rousing politicians, so-called “alt-right” groups and talk show hosts, the issue was very low on Alabamians’ daily concerns. However, Alabama’s immigration laws had become a model for other states and for Donald Trump, both as candidate and president. So the national status of the undocumented became a flashpoint in human relations across the country. Thanks to Trump’s proposed wall at the border with Mexico and the Gestapo-like tactics of United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Americans are increasingly polarized over the issue of immigrants, with no sign of a cooling-off period.
However, our author maintains that her research shows people respond to polls quite differently than to everyday-life issues. She has spent a good deal of time in Bayou La Batre, describing it as “a place of its own” that has waves of immigrants — Vietnamese and Latino — drawn to jobs in the seafood and seafood processing industry there. The town has absorbed the newcomers far better than the towns around chicken processing plants in North Alabama, but wages are low and the work is not steady. Generally, coastal Alabama has been more tolerant of Latinos, but by and large they are still strangers in a strange land, too.
In addition to her other research conducted over six years, Giagnoni studied the history of racial discrimination in Alabama, which is certainly the background for the current troubles. Alabamians are rather strident when asked about race, and the dark-skinned Mexicans and Central Americans look different, speak another language and are predominantly Catholic. None of these characteristics commend them to white Protestant Alabamians. It is awfully easy to be racist, isn’t it?
Few whites have a close circle of friends that include minorities, and our personal contact with nonwhites is fleeting and superficial. Also, Alabamians watch more TV than the rest of America, with a preference for game and survival shows. This limits our understanding of people who are “not like us.” Indeed, it blinds us to shared values.
Latino immigrants are very much family oriented and often explain that they come here so their children will have a better life. They are hardworking, obliged to have more than one job and find only low-wage jobs are open to them. Many Alabamians are in a similar situation. The author’s research does not support the charge that immigrants steal jobs from native-born Americans. However, in the Great Recession many believed that was the case, with little or no proof. If you are out of work, it’s hard to believe that is not the case.
Like most Alabamians and most Americans, we have a core group of family and friends with whom we are especially comfortable. They resemble us and our values, which is hardly surprising. Immigrants are no different.
They have left behind their family, friends and culture. Most immigrants from south of the border are not well educated and find it very hard to make the transition from their homeland to the U.S. They find themselves in a new world of harsh and discriminating laws and customs. They look for fellow immigrants to help cushion the transition and loneliness they feel. Often it is a church family that takes them in and helps, but just as often they must rely on one another.
The author reminds us of the stereotypes we fall victim to and with which we are reluctant to part. TV programs and political ads depend on stereotypes we all too often accept. Our limited education, experience with different cultures, and low incomes all imprison us and make it hard to befriend and accept immigrants. Despite the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty most immigrants, even those with education and proper papers, find life in our state challenging.
This book was written before Trump’s presidency had time to spread its wings. Sadly his administration has so far made life for Latinos worse and encouraged individual states to restrict them even further. However, this book ends on a positive note based on the author’s experience with Montgomery’s pools and parks. Once virtually closed to African-Americans, they are once again functioning, accommodating a racially and culturally diverse clientele. It is this sort of contact that breaks down discriminatory behavior, in Giagnoni’s thoughtful opinion.
“Here We May Rest: Alabama Immigrants in the Age of HB 56”
NewSouth Books, 2017; $29.95