Last month, Luis Robledo accompanied a Spanish-speaking woman and her young son to a medical appointment in Birmingham. Both are HIV-positive and had to go in for a regular check-up. But she is an undocumented immigrant, and had become increasingly concerned about Alabama’s harsh anti-immigrant law. A couple of weeks ago, she took her child — a U.S. citizen — and moved back to Guatemala.
“It was really emotional for everyone involved,” Robledo, an interpreter, told me at a community event at the Alabama Theater in Birmingham to educate people about the law. “This isn’t a game, you see real consequences. I see the fear in people’s faces every day — the fear of whether or not I can take my child to the hospital or risk being deported.”
The family’s doctor in Birmingham was so concerned he took the time to research the closest medical center to the woman’s hometown, and learned it’s likely a three-hour drive away. That inevitably means the risk that they won’t get the medical care they need is heightened. But that the mother would take that risk rather than stay in Alabama says a lot about the law that caused her to flee.
Her story is one of many I’ve heard traveling throughout Alabama the last several days. Many Latinos in the state live in a constant state of fear since the nation’s harshest immigration law took effect Sept. 28.
“Never have I seen such an exodus of people. I don’t know if we can ever recover the humanitarian loss and the human capital of people who left,” Robledo said. “I hope the people who are still here will stay.”
Many of those who do remain not only live in fear but are vulnerable to exploitation. I heard about a Mexican woman who helped support her baby boy — an American citizen — by cleaning people’s homes. When the anti-immigrant law went into effect, the woman’s clients told her they would no longer need her services — unless she was willing to work for $3 an hour. The minimum wage in Alabama is $7.25 an hour. Within days, the woman packed her belongings and drove off with her son to another state.
“Suddenly we don’t have her any more in Alabama because of the law,” said Hernan Prado, who helped organize the Birmingham event. “We came to love her and her son.”
Parts of the law have been temporarily blocked and the legal battle being waged against it by the ACLU and other groups continues. However, some of its harshest provisions have been left intact by the courts. This has led to a devastating situation, with many families — including those with legal residents and U.S. citizens — afraid to leave home, go to school, drive to work or even go the hospital.
Orlando Rosa, who works at La Jefa, a Spanish-language Alabama radio station, said callers have been talking about fear gripping their lives.
“Many of the stories are about mothers scared about leaving their homes,” he said, “and kids are frightened to come home and see that their parents are not there anymore.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the law took effect on Sept. 1; that was incorrect. It took effect on Sept. 28.