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Reaching into the Shadows

By Carol Ward

Navigating the Intricacies of Serving Undocumented Families

immigration and homelessnessA strict immigration law in Alabama, HB-56, requires police, schools, and hospitals to check the immigration status of students, patients, and anyone stopped and suspected of being an undocumented immigrant. The law has both the legal and undocumented Latino population in the state fearful of deportation and family breakups. A young girl does her homework in a home of mixed citizenship. Half the family is worried about sudden deportation, while others, born in the U.S., have full citizenship.

Summer 2012

Early in the summer of 2012, a cover story in Time magazine featured a group of young people who have “come out” in a new way. These individuals, brought to the United States as small children, were openly declaring their status as non-citizens via social media and other outlets in an effort to effect political change. Whether or not as a result, President Obama announced in June 2012 that hundreds of thousands of people who immigrated to the U.S. illegally as children will be allowed to stay and work without fear of being deported.

Such developments have fueled the debate about immigration in the United States, but these stories don’t capture the realities of the lives of undocumented people living in this country—a group that the Center for Immigration Studies numbered in 2009 at nearly 11 million. Many are concentrated in specific areas, with, for example, 2.7 million in California, 1.45 million in Texas, 1.05 million in Florida, and 925,000 in New York, according to the Pew Research Center; approximately 80 percent are from Latin American countries (the majority of those from Mexico), 12 percent from Asia, 4 percent from Europe and Canada, and 4 percent from Africa and other places. They come to the U.S. for reasons ranging from extreme poverty to political oppression in their native countries; once here, many have a tenuous personal safety net at best.

“Undocumented families are among the most resourceless population in the United States,” says Ruben Garcia, director of El Paso’s Annunciation House, a privately funded shelter and assistance center that serves mainly undocumented individuals.

“These families are unable to access the most basic of social services that we usually count on to help people keep their heads above water,” Garcia adds. “That makes life very difficult and marginalizes people in a severe way.”

Susan Bowyer, directing attorney for the Immigration Center for Women and Children’s San Francisco office, calls undocumented individuals “the most vulnerable people in the United States.” “They can’t call the police or access services, and they’re not eligible for any public benefits,” Bowyer points out. 

Murky Waters in Alabama

Finding ways to reach and assist undocumented families in Alabama became more difficult last year, when the state legislature passed what is considered to be the most aggressive anti-immigration law among all states, surpassing even the restrictions of Arizona’s law.

Four other states (Utah, Georgia, Indiana, and South Carolina) have passed immigration-enforcement laws, while eight more (Oklahoma, Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida) have made moves toward doing so. Among other restrictions, Arizona’s SB 1070, passed in 2010, made it a misdemeanor for an alien to be in Arizona without carrying the required documents; it also required that state law-enforcement officials attempt to determine individuals’ immigration status during lawful stops, detentions, or arrests, or during “ lawful contacts,” when there is reasonable suspicion that the individual is an illegal immigrant. (The U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of the law in June 2012.) In Alabama “we took Arizona’s bad law and made it worse,” says Stephen Stetson, a policy analyst at the Arise Citizens’ Policy Project, a Montgomery, Alabama–based group that addresses poverty issues in the state.

Alabama’s new law instructs police to check the immigration status of anyone they stop if they suspect the person of being an undocumented immigrant. The law also makes it a felony to harbor, shield, or transport illegal immigrants, although it is unclear where the burden of knowledge lies. In October 2011 the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily blocked several portions of the law, including a requirement that schools check the immigration status of new students and their families.

Stetson says the law has put a severe crimp in the services available to undocumented individuals, such as access to housing.

“To rent an apartment to someone who is undocumented is criminalized in Alabama,” he says, noting that landlords are handling the new rules in various ways.

“The law doesn’t say that [the landlord] must demand citizenship papers, but he could,” Stetson explains. “A lot of landlords are erring on the side of caution. It’s been extremely hard for a lot of these people to enter into lease agreements.”

An early version of the law, which has since been amended, was interpreted to mean that state-run utility companies could not enter into business transactions with undocumented individuals. For the winter of 2011–12, that meant many undocumented families were without heat and running water.

Providing food assistance has also become fraught with difficulty. Dick Hiatt, executive director of the Food Bank of North Alabama in Huntsville, says excessive paperwork, fears of prosecution, and lower food volume are three results of the new law.

The Food Bank of North Alabama serves as a wholesaler, distributing food—including government food provided through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)—to several groups throughout the region. Because it receives that food from the federal government, it is considered to be a state-funded entity. Under the new law, the Food Bank of North Alabama must prove that no group it conducts business with employs any illegal immigrants.

“It all has to be done formally, and all the documents have to be notarized,” Hiatt says, noting that his organization is audited regularly.

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