Sweet home Alabama is only sweet for some
Sailor’s Lounge caters to the hard-bittenest drinkers in the deep south coastal town of Mobile, Alabama. There’s a woman, maybe 80, who wears her dress unbuttoned to reveal her entire cleavage. Her steady eye contact is unnerving.
Another woman, sitting at the bar, tells the story of how her pretty mother, who worked as a Bunny waitress in a Mississippi club, was found dead under a building from a suspected hot shot. That was decades ago.
And there’s the woman called Mama, who owns the bar. She’s about 70. She came to Mobile five decades ago from Turkey. She worked on a cruise ship where she was also required to double as the ship’s resident belly dancer.
The joint reeks of sex and death, or maybe death sex.
At best, only a handful of drinkers frequent Sailor’s Lounge on any day. It is a curiosity, a relic of the past. But perhaps Alabama’s lawmakers should come and have a look at it.
This bar, a place of memories and decay, could be an unsettling glimpse into what lies ahead for this state if they push ahead with a damaging anti-Hispanic immigration law that threatens to bring Alabama to its knees.
The law, known as HB56, the toughest in a suite of similar anti-immigrant laws introduced by legislators in Utah, Indiana, Georgia and Arizona.
The difference is that in the other states, key aspects of the laws have been knocked down by superior courts or under serious challenge as unconstitutional.
The Alabama law, which passed, in June, has so far mostly survived intact.
It allows police to check the immigration status of people when pulling them over, or to hold suspected illegal immigrants without a bond; makes it illegal for an illegal immigrant to do business of any kind with the state; it requires employers to verify employees’ status; and requires schools to check students’ immigration status.
While schools cannot refuse to educate illegal children, the information will provide authorities with leads to their illegal parents. One immediate effect of the law was that many parents pulled their kids out of school and fled the state. Those who stayed behind became too fearful to drive their vehicles.
Anecdotally, legal Hispanic citizens have also left Alabama, simply because they don’t like the legally endorsed culture of fear and harassment.
How many have gone is uncertain, but the law has backfired. Farmers are complaining they can’t bring in their crops; and businesses have hit a chronic shortage of the type of cheap labour Hispanics typically provide.
In a legal challenge in September, an Alabama superior court judge refused to block the law, though she did put two aspects under review for a later ruling.
One is the section that forbids businesses from deducting tax from illegal workers; the other is the part making it illegal to transport an illegal immigrant in a car, or to harbour them. Until that part was put on hold, members of Alabama church groups had been risking arrest by driving illegal immigrants to their places of work, or to the shops.
To some, the law is simply a long overdue correction designed to flush out illegals who should not be in the country anyway. For others, it is proof that Alabama’s brutal civil rights history is not over.
Alabama has struggled hard in recent years to entice US and foreign businesses to set up factories in its state. It was left embarrassed in November when a policeman arrested and jailed a German executive visiting its Mercedes Benz plant in Tuscaloosa, for being a suspected illegal. Two weeks later, a similar thing happened to a visiting Japanese employee of Honda.
While the offence was not so egregious as to force the companies to pull out, the message has gone around the world that Alabama is not such a foreign-friendly place. But more than that, companies looking to set up in the south now know that they will not be able to rely on Hispanics to do the kind of cheap but necessary labour that many US citizens decline to do.
Republican presidential candidates have been dragged into the debate. Lead contender Mitt Romney has said illegals must come out of the shadows and declare themselves. Under the Romney proposal, they would have to return to Mexico (or Guatemala or Costa Rica or the Dominican Republic) and reapply to enter. That could mean waiting decades.
But no one believes that Romney, who was once called out for employing a gardening company that used Hispanic illegals, would enforce such a law if he became president.
Romney’s main opponent, Newt Gingrich, has taken a softer line, proposing that a review board be set up to allow the estimated 11 million illegal workers to apply for a kind of amnesty from within America. But he said that many millions might have to go home.
Governor Rick Perry, from the boom state of Texas, continually deflects the question. He knows such a crackdown on illegals would leave the economy of his state in turmoil. Texas shares the longest border with Mexico and Perry steers the conversation towards maintaining strong borders and fighting incoming drugs, rather than attacking the existing Hispanic workforce.
The truth is that none of them want this argument but the political environment demands they are seen to appease a section of the population that believes Hispanics are robbing the country of what is theirs.
President Barack Obama’s position is ambiguous. He has said hard-working Hispanic families must be not be banished; but he has also pointed his finger at employers for exploiting illegals with low wages.
Meanwhile, under Obama, there have been a record number of deportations of illegals with criminal backgrounds, with an estimated 400,000 illegals sent home in the last fiscal year alone.
Obama will no doubt brandish these figures as the presidential race intensifies, while at the same time trying to appeal to the estimated 50 million legal Hispanics in the US who will play a significant part in the outcome of the 2012 presidential race.
Albert Rossi, 46, runs a Mexican restaurant in Bayou La Batre, a small upriver fishing town south of Mobile. Before the June law came in, Rossi says there was a population of some 200 Hispanics in Bayou La Batre. Now he believes there are about 20 people, including his own (legal) family.
“Myself, being just one restaurant, it hasn’t affected me greatly,” he says. “Before the law came in I got prepared, did what I had to do. I let one guy go. I had no choice but to comply. I had one guy who was questionable. He had no papers. He was almost crying. He left.
“I know someone who has a restaurant, she had to shut down. Everyone was afraid. They were leaving the state, leaving cars behind, leaving homes behind. It did have a big impact.
“It’s sad in different ways. Where I have a problem is they’re messing with the kids. They’re racial profiling, they’re looking at skin colour. That’s what bothers me. I hope they change something, because, you know, it’s just been sad.
“I ran into three people who were packing up to leave. They were from Guatemala. They’ve been here 10 years. They didn’t tell the landlord, they just went. I told them to calm down, wait and see what happens. But they panicked. One went east and two of them went to Texas.
“Everyone’s gone to Mississippi, Texas, Florida.
“Every farmer I talk to who supplies stuff to me, they’re hurting bad (without workers). They went too far with this law and they never looked at the consequences.”
In 1986, Ronald Reagan provided amnesty to Hispanics who had arrived in the country prior to 1982. No one is certain where this debate is headed, but it is impossible to believe there will come a time when millions of Hispanics are shipped en masse back from where they came.
It would be the most wrenching and savage exodus of modern times. It is all talk. Except in Alabama, the state that has shot itself in the foot.
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