The purpose of this series is to dig deeper into the lived experience of immigration in Alabama in 2017. Immigration is not just an economic, cultural or political issue, and to forget the human impact is to get an imperfect view of an intrinsic part of the American experience.
Across Alabama, clusters of immigrants create their own local communities, and immigrants on controversial H-1B visas contribute to research and economic development in the state. While Alabama’s public schools struggle to teach English as a second language, police officers around the state juggle the protection of their communities with the enforcement of immigration laws. In some places, such as the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, national immigration policies implicate all Alabamians in a system both legal and unjust. Through it all, faith joins communities of lifetime Alabamians and immigrants together in solidarity.
Alabama's immigrants pursue the American Dream
Janaki Patel spent the first part of her life in the river city of Vadodara, Gujarat, in India. It’s where she grew up, went to school and, after 27 years, began to dream about more. She wanted to find the love of her life and begin a new journey, one that would take her to America.
Within a year, she met Jatin Patel and got married. The two of them moved to America, where Janaki had a new family, a new degree, a new business and a new life, something she had always dreamed of.
Janaki and Jatin would settle down in Northern Alabama, home to many other immigrants. They would live in Decatur, just down the road from Florence, a place where the Indian Family Cultural Association welcomed Indian immigrants across the region to celebrate traditional Hindu holidays and festivals. It would take many years before the two of them would become American citizens. Even then, it would take longer to feel comfortable.
After more than eight years, Janaki would still be self-conscious about her broken English and worried about making new friends who wouldn’t mind the language barrier. Janaki and her family would try new, American things like carving pumpkins during Halloween, while never forgetting where they came from. She would raise her children to eat traditional Indian meals like curry while also letting them eat Taco Bell and McDonald’s.
Janaki and her family represent a small portion of immigrants in Alabama. Their family and other Indian immigrant families in Northern Alabama show what some scholars refer to as clustering of immigrants. They live near an area where immigrants from their country gather together in their commonality. It is a natural and ecological occurrence throughout the state that happens with immigrants from different cultures and backgrounds.
Scholars have studied immigration in Alabama, looking for a common connection. Historian Raymond A. Mohl, who spent a portion of his 50-year career studying immigration, found an increase of Hispanic immigrants during the 90s in places like Russellville, Collinsville and Albertville for migrant work. In the case of Russellville, one-third of the population became Hispanic, which brought natives foods and Spanish-language television to the town.
Anthropologists Mark Moberg and Stephen Thomas also studied immigration in Alabama by examining the seafood processing industry in Bayou La Batre, noting the influx of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian immigrants to the city in the 1970s. When Moberg and Thomas studied the seafood industry in the late 1990s, 20 years after the influx of immigrants, about 70 percent of the crab-processing workers were of Asian descent.
Victoria Siciliano, the communications coordinator for the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, can attest that clusters do form in towns across the state.
“I think it’s a really organic process that people will tend to migrate somewhere where there might already be family members or friends or somebody who came before them who kind of staked out the area to make sure that there are employment opportunities,” said Victoria. “It tends to happen around places that are going to have a lot of employment opportunities for migrant workers, so whether it be farming communities or poultry processing facilities, or even just large cities like Birmingham where there are a lot of different kinds of opportunities.”
Job availability or career opportunity seems to be one reason immigrants cluster in towns, but Victoria believes clusters also form for comfort. People with common cultures stick together, bringing a piece of home with them to their new country. Clusters can also form when family members or friends immigrate to one place and then encourage others to join them. For Janaki, she joined her husband and cousins in Decatur, and is now working on bringing her parents over to join them.
Janaki looked at biodata with her parents. She looked at the information as if it were a resume: name, family, job information, interests and, of course, a picture. Janaki was ready to get married and wanted an arranged marriage, something common in Indian culture.
She did not believe in love marriages. What if she met someone by chance and they ended up being bad for her? Arranged marriages represented a cornerstone of her culture. Whoever she would marry would be bonded to her, body and soul.
The mood in the room changes when Janaki and Jatin are in the room together. They smile and laugh, especially when reminiscing on how they met.
Jatin flew from America to India in 2007 for an arranged marriage. He looked at biodata and met with over 10 different women. He met someone he says he was 70 percent sure was the woman for him when he saw Janaki’s biodata. The two met and were engaged in just a week.
They didn’t know it at the time, but Janaki and Jatin’s families had met before. Fifteen years before, Janaki’s father bought land from Jatin’s father. The families never met each other in person, but the two were drawn together again. Jatin tells people it was destiny.
The happy couple flipped through their wedding album. It was in an album over an inch thick that stretched across two chairs, requiring two people to hold it. Inside, there were images of their ornate ceremony. The album showed families dancing, traditional ceremonies like one involving the bride carrying a clay pot on her head, and glamour shots of Janaki and Jatin, dressed in bright red. One picture showed Janaki crying. She would be leaving soon after the wedding to start her new life in America after living in Vadodara for her entire life.
Though Janaki said she was nervous, Jatin also mentioned that it had been her dream to come to America since before they met. Both of them said that it’s a parent’s dream to have their children marry American immigrants. Jatin guessed that 90 percent of the Indian families he knows here did the same thing. America is the land of opportunities, where men and women can start from nothing and make something of themselves.
“Girls, even boys when they’re starting, they have the dream, they come to United States and get a better life,” Jatin said.
Janaki and Jatin moved to Decatur, Alabama, and began their new life together. Jatin had already began to establish himself there, plus, they had cousins who moved to Decatur as well. The family owns two convenience stores, one in Decatur and one in Athens. Janaki applied for a student visa and started her MBA at the University of North Alabama. She soon became pregnant, causing her to have to stop attending school.
After having her son and looking at her options, she chose to move to California to finish her degree at Herguan University. She lived there just her and Deep, who was a baby at the time. Once she finished, she moved back to Decatur to join her husband.
Despite finishing her MBA, Janaki felt uncomfortable when applying to jobs. She said when she applied to work in local banks and pharmacies, they would tell her she couldn’t apply without a social security number or an H-1B visa.
“When I applied for a job, they always say, ‘no you are not a citizen here, so you do not get the job. Because I completed MBA, I want to make a good job, I don’t want to work in the store,” Janaki said.
Janaki received her citizenship in the American Village in Montevallo, Alabama, on Constitution Day 2016, just in time to vote in the election. She had waited eight years to become a citizen, often being teased by Jatin and their two sons about being the last one to become a citizen.
“My son said ‘Momma, you’re not citizen, so who are you?’ … Then he asked my husband, ‘Dad, how is it possible? You citizen, me citizen, so why is she not? Why did you not get in here?’ I said, ‘no dear, don’t worry, I will be,’” Janaki said.
Since gaining her U.S. citizenship, she has mainly focused on registering to vote and filling out paperwork for her parents to immigrate here. After that, she will start applying to jobs again. She said she is worried her broken English may cause problems.
“I’m talking too much in my language at home and I’m working in store, but store does not have a good platform to speak. So now I’m nervous,” Janaki said.
Janaki’s home shows the blending of both Indian and American traditions. Decorations that celebrate Ganesha, the Hindu God resembling an elephant, can be seen throughout the Patel residence. A shrine for Ganesha sits by the door, welcoming visitors. In October, the Patel family added Halloween decorations to the yard. Deep dressed up as a Transformer. Janaki’s youngest son, Kush, was a firefighter.
“Every year, I just make a pumpkin cutting and everything, color and everything and we put outside, we put outside, and I have a skeleton and everything I put outside and decorate for Halloween and Thanksgiving too,” Janaki said.
The family celebrates Hindu and traditional American holidays. They go to Point Mallard Park to picnic for the Fourth of July. Deep and Kush have already picked out their Halloween costumes. The family made pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving and put a Christmas tree up by the window in the front of their house. The tree was strung with lights and silver garland with Santa Claus sitting on top.
“I know my kids know our festivals and here festivals. I don’t want to think they just celebrate all our festivals. Because we are living – we are citizens here,” Janaki said.
At the same time, Janaki said she has taken her kids to see their grandparents in India. She said they went to India during Deep’s birthday one year during the Kite Festival.
“We went to the park. My birthday was there, we celebrated my birthday there,” Deep said, then talking about how he flew kites and crashed a few.
The family celebrates Hindu festivals and holidays with the Indian Family Cultural Association. The IFCA hosts events in Florence, Alabama, that draw in people from across the state as far as Scottsboro and Guntersville. When celebrating festivals like Navratri or Diwali, the family will dress in traditional Indian garments and head to the Florence-Lauderdale Coliseum. Bouncy houses keep the children occupied as their parents dance the night away, often dancing from the early evening to as late as 3 a.m.
The IFCA brings together a cluster of Indian immigrants when they put on their festivals. With that being said, Janaki does not live in a cluster. She lives in a typical, southern neighborhood with people from different backgrounds. Her cousin, Bhavik, lives in the community as well, but it isn’t by any means a cluster of Indian immigrants.
Since moving to Decatur, the family has made friends. Deep, Janaki’s 8-year-old son, plays soccer for Decatur’s youth soccer team and has made friends with his teammates. Janaki has talked with the soccer parents and her neighbors, but it makes her nervous.
“They are friendly, but I’m not too much friendly, because I had, I think I’m not a citizen here so maybe they ask me if I’m a citizen, if they know okay I’m not a citizen will they talk to me and I feel a little bit nervous because I’m not good communication because I think they are going to talk to me,” Janaki said.
Deep brought up an interesting story about the neighborhood.
“One time there was a robber in our garage getting the lawnmower!” Deep said.
Janaki explained that one day, she and her husband Jatin left the garage open so the children could play. Jatin and Janaki were leaving for the bank when they saw someone with their lawnmower loading it into the back of their pick-up truck. Jatin tried to follow them, but they sped off, even breaking part of the lawnmower in the process. Janaki said her neighbors were surprised. Having lived there for seven years, they told her that things like that don’t typically happen.
Other than that single incident, Janaki has felt welcome in Alabama and couldn’t see herself anywhere else. She is currently gathering paperwork together to bring her parents to America as well. Janaki, her family and the IFCA represent just one cluster in Alabama. Also, family is not the only thing that brings immigrants to the U.S. For Victoria, it was her mother’s research that added them to an international cluster in Birmingham.
Victoria and Liliana
When she was 9 years old, Victoria immigrated to the United States with her mother, Liliana Viera. Liliana was a biologist and was offered a job to help study Lou Gehrig’s disease at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Liliana said they were more excited than afraid to move from Uruguay to Alabama.
Liliana and her family packed light for their trip. In their minds, this would be a temporary move; they didn’t want to move everything they had. Boxes filled up Liliana’s parent’s home as the family decided what they wanted to keep. Victoria kept her books. The family left for America excited at the idea of a fresh start.
Liliana and Victoria traveled from Uruguay to Atlanta and waited for Liliana’s husband to pick them up. Unfortunately, her husband got into a car accident on his way. He would be later than he told them, leaving Liliana with her young daughter in a place they did not recognize with people speaking a language they did not understand.
Liliana said that once they made it to Birmingham, a family from Uruguay helped them get settled. They had a nice place to live and someone to relate to throughout the experience. The family had a 4-year-old daughter that Victoria came to view as a little sister.
“It was really special for me to have her — and in a way I think just because she had been there longer and spoke English and I didn’t, we had this really funny dynamic where a lot of times she would kind of be the one that had to show me the ropes,” Victoria said.
Victoria remembers moving to Homewood, being a part of one of the two families in her elementary school that spoke Spanish. In fact, she was often called to the office to act as a translator for administrators.
She said it was not hard for her family to make friends, and overall, she has always felt welcome in Alabama aside from a few isolated incidents. From what she has witnessed as a member of the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, international clusters tend to form in cities where people are coming to work in fields like scientific research. She said immigrant researchers often will come together almost like a support system.
Victoria and her mother are not U.S. citizens, but because of the research she completed at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, they are both permanent residents. Victoria said they haven’t felt a need to become citizens up to this point.
“We’ve always had it in the back of our minds as, ‘Yeah, that’s something we should do,’ but it’s a lot more costly than continuing to renew a permanent residency,” said Victoria.
To renew a green card for a permanent resident, with most green cards lasting 10 years, it costs $330. When completing the naturalization application, there is a $595 filing fee and a biometric services fee of $85, totaling $680 per application. For some immigrants, it makes more sense to wait and maintain a permanent residency, rather than spend the money to become a citizen. Victoria said with the anti-immigrant sentiment in the presidential election, she became more concerned about her citizenship.
The morning after the presidential election results were announced, Victoria had what she called a desperate moment, remembering friends offering to help her come up with the money for her and her mother to put an application together. She asked on Facebook if her friends and colleagues would help her if she put together a crowdfunding page for her application. After an outpour of support, she created a page on GoFundMe, which would give her and her mother an opportunity to raise the money online. Within an hour, she had the money for both her and her mother’s applications.
“It was an amazing thing to happen, to feel so loved and so supported,” said Victoria, “I would say the overwhelming majority — maybe like 95 percent — of the money that was donated was donated by Americans, by U.S. citizens that want to keep us here.”
Liliana credits her daughter for putting their journey to citizenship into motion. Thinking back on the day the crowdfunding page was put online, Liliana expressed how amazing the response was.
“The gratitude we feel is immense,” said Liliana. “The generosity was overwhelming.”
Victoria has met with a lawyer and is preparing to start her application. Having been educated in the United States, she is not as worried as other immigrants who were taught outside of the United States, tend to be about the citizenship test. Despite her preparedness, she said the quickest she has seen people go through the process completely has been six to nine months.
“There’s a lot that goes into it, and I think for people that are wondering why we don’t just decide to become a citizen one day and do it, there’s a lot of underlying reasons that aren’t well known that people don’t consider,” said Victoria.
She had a lot of reasons to become a citizen. Victoria met her husband in high school when they were both theater techs in class. Since then, they have been together for 14 years.
“Something my mother-in-law always tells me is she’s been praying for son’s spouse ever since he was born and that she never would have thought in a million years that she was praying for a little girl in Uruguay,” said Victoria.
Victoria said that she feels like it was meant to be because they never would have crossed paths otherwise. Her husband and daughter Lili, Liliana’s namesake, give her a reason to fight for her right to be in this country, as well as to start her path to citizenship. Fighting for the rights of others is something Victoria has been familiar with while working for Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice. It has put her in contact with immigrants across the state, like Yolanda Ambrosio.
Yolanda wanted to move to America to give her family a better life. Her daughter was born in California, and she wanted her daughter to know the country she was born in. As an immigrant on her journey to a new home, she was not worried about finding a job. Unlike Tijuana, she knew work would come easily.
She traveled with her three daughters, ages 4, 10 and 12, to America. The family flew from Tijuana to San Diego. Then, they flew from San Diego to Chicago. Then from Chicago to Texas. Finally, they flew to Birmingham and made their way to Russellville. Her husband had heard stories in California of a chicken plant in Russellville that paid well and offered loans to workers. He moved there and found work in a furniture factory.
Yolanda said people were welcoming as she entered the country, though a combination of their pile of luggage, and the outgoingness of her daughters ensured that people noticed them. Yolanda said one of the most challenging parts was using the bathroom. There was a time where she and her four daughters had to share a handicap stall at the airport so she wouldn’t lose them.
“My daughters were, they didn’t want to all go to the bathroom in front of each other in the stall together but it was — it’s funny looking back on it now, but at the time it was a really scary thing, just traveling with all of the responsibility of these young kids,” said Yolanda.
Yolanda did not have a job when she first moved to Russellville. She did not have a car, and she did not have the public transportation system she was used to in Tijuana. She spent her days alone trying to figure out this new place she would come to call home.
“When I first got here, I was really not prepared because it was so different,” said Yolanda. “The houses were all closed up. It was like there were no people. And I wasn’t working so I was at home and sometimes would just go and walk around the neighborhood just to get out.”
The food was different too. The tortillas, an essential ingredient to many meals, tasted completely different. To get authentic ingredients, she would have to travel to the next town over just to get knockoffs of the authentic food. Yolanda ended up losing 20 pounds adjusting to the new food options.
As a mother, living in Alabama was different as well. Her family did not know English when they arrived, so Yolanda had no way of helping her daughters learn the language as they began school. Luckily, they had Josie Dugan, a Cuban teacher at the school who went out of her way to help the girls learn. Her help meant the world to Yolanda.
“One thing I really admire about my daughters is that they never gave up,” Yolanda said. “And with the help of this teacher, they were really able to learn well and quickly.”
Yolanda’s husband also worked at a trailer park performing maintenance. Yolanda would join him just to pass the time, but ended up making friends along the way. Eventually, she would have a job of her own. She worked at many different places over the years, from a Jimmy Dean hamburger processing plant to a factory that made pulleys. She worked at Harden Furniture Factory alongside her husband for six years. She later would work at a Pilgrim’s Pride chicken plant for eight years, until she needed to have her knee replaced.
At the chicken plant, she would rotate to a new position along the assembly line every few hours. Some of the positions, like the beginning steps of slaughtering the chickens, were intense. Workers would have to kill chickens as they were released into a small, unventilated room. The overpowering smell of bleach and other chemicals filled the warm room as workers gutted the chickens. At another part of the rotation, workers would cut and package the chicken. Yolanda said this part of the process was fast-paced and grueling; she processed up to six chickens a minute.
“Sometimes it was so hot that we would let a chicken go by just so that we could have the time to wipe our faces, and then somebody from sanitation supervisor would come and they would give us write-ups,” said Yolanda.
According to Yolanda, the workers at Pilgrim’s Pride did not rotate the way the protocols called for. They would give immigrants the tougher stations for hours at a time. She said that even under those extreme conditions, her supervisors were still never happy with her work. Pilgrim’s Pride did not respond to requests for comments.
This is not the only time Yolanda has felt that she was being treated differently. People will ignore her when she’s shopping in department stores instead of asking if she needs help. Asking for something as simple as a new handicap sticker for her car may elicit a nasty response. She noticed animosity in politics as the primaries began.
This animosity towards immigrants is a large part of the reason Yolanda decided to become a citizen after 20 years of living in Alabama. She wanted her voice to be heard, and she wanted to inspire her children to become citizens too.
“I was really motivated to vote and to be counted, and stand up and be able to have my voice be heard,” said Yolanda. “So having that piece of paper and really knowing that in the upcoming elections I was going to be able to make a difference was wonderful.”
Despite becoming a citizen, Yolanda said she still feels like an outsider at times. She said it’s not like she can show her paperwork everywhere she goes in order to be treated the same. With that being said, she feels safer when she hears about people being pulled over based on the color of their skin. She knows she is safe from deportation now.
Although Russellville and Tijuana could not be more different, she sees home in both of them. For her, Alabama was the place she and her family could have a better life.
“Yes, I do consider Alabama my home,” said Yolanda. “We had a lot of success here, progress for my daughters and my husband and myself. Even now, I’ll see with my neighbors, they’re progressing.”
The search for opportunity is what leads many immigrants to America. It’s what led Kenyan immigrant Benson Machua to Minnesota to train as a nurse. Despite going back to Kenya afterward, his longing for new opportunities would lead him back, this time to Birmingham, Alabama.
Benson knew from a young age what he wanted to be. In his personal life, he wanted to raise a family of his own that would never struggle to make ends meet. He wanted to be a better father than his was. His father made a good living, but would never share his wealth with his wife. Benson’s mother told him to focus on school, constantly encouraging him to read as a way to find a better life.
“As I went through school, I was thinking of the life I would bring up,” said Benson. “I’d get married. I’d have some kids. I would take care of them better than my dad. I’d give them all of what I had, better than my dad.”
After high school, Benson decided he wanted to become a nurse. In medical school, he would be among the top three in his class his first year. In his second year, he stayed in the same ranking and would graduate as a cardiac nurse.
Benson worked at a government institution for 13 years. He then moved to a private hospital for nine years. He worked at the Nairobi Hospital, the best hospital in east central Sahara. In fact, his team was responsible for operating on Prudence Bushnell, the U.S. ambassador injured during the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya.
Later in life, he was given the opportunity to travel with his cardiac team to Minnesota to work as a nurse and further specialize. He was invited with the promise of more experience and more money.
Benson said the people he worked with in Minnesota enticed him to stay, explaining the visa process and what he would need down the road. While he was there, he got his permanent license, along with a pay increase. Ultimately, he decided to go back to Kenya for a few years, knowing opportunities were available for him in America.
Benson had reached out to a friend in Cincinnati, Ohio, and had scheduled an interview with a school there. Before going, he decided to visit his niece in Birmingham. He never made it to his interview. He chose to stay with family, but because of this, he was in a new place without a job.
“If there’s anything bad in life, it’s someone who had a job. Someone who had a good life, and now, things aren’t good for you…” said Benson.
Benson’s first job was at a plant store downtown. He was given a raise after working three days, and in three months, he would become manager. He took classes in counseling, thinking he would work at his church. He never went back to school for nursing, thinking he was now too old to go back to school. Now, Benson works at a convenience store as a co-manager.
“That kind of work is not the kind of work I went to school for,” Benson said. “But you have to accept it. You’re in a new environment ... Instead of feeling like you want to go back home, face it. So I had to face it. But so long as I’m getting my dollars, I’m alright.”
Benson was advised by his Minnesota colleagues to gather the necessary paperwork to become a citizen. His pastor in Birmingham referred him to an attorney that would help him through the citizenship process. Because of their guidance and Benson’s determination, he became a citizen.
Through all the years of medical training, Benson never celebrated. He never wanted to. He graduated alone and his accomplishments were just for him. After becoming a citizen, Benson felt like celebrating for the first time in his entire life.
For Benson, Alabama has become his home and he can’t imagine being anywhere else. He has not always felt welcome in his community. He said he notices a racial divide in America that he did not notice in Kenya. He said he did not notice race in Kenya, he just competed with his classmates and tried to better himself.
He paid attention to politics and voted in the last election. To him, the political climate seems un-American and unfamiliar to what he has come to know as American politics. When Benson feels that the country is going in the wrong direction, he turns to God.
“I would pray that we have some peace in this country,” said Benson. “I feel like we are not going well, and the only thing that can save this one, is God.”
For some immigrants, political strife is what brought them into this country to begin with. This was the case for Tuan Do and Hugh Tran when they left Vietnam after the Vietnam War.
Tuan and Hugh
Vietnamese soldiers fighting against communism in the Vietnam War had two options once the United States pulled out of the country. One option was to stay and risk being tortured or killed for their treachery. The other option was to leave the country in search of a better life elsewhere.
In many cases, Vietnamese immigrants would try their luck at sailing away from Vietnam. When they realized the flaws in their idea, they would find themselves lost at sea in need of rescuing. That is where the Boat People would come in. Their organization, Boat People SOS, rescued Vietnamese migrants, bringing them to America through the Humanitarian Operation Act and leading them to a better life. They also do a variety of other work, like disaster relief, health education and family wellness.
“Since then nowadays, not a lot of people need to be rescued out in the water anymore, so we turn to focus on advocates and help providing resources and to empower the people here that need help, ” said Tuan, an employee at Boat People SOS’s office in Bayou La Batre.
Tuan knows first hand what immigrants from Vietnam went through when moving to the U.S. to escape persecution. Tuan traveled from Vietnam to Boston when he was 10 years old. His father served in the Vietnamese military during the Vietnam War. After the war, he was sent to a training camp for five years. Tuan and Hugh, one of the Boat people, describe the training camp as essentially jail time. The purpose was to retrain a soldier’s train of thought.
It took him and his parents years to adjust in Boston, but having friends from his father’s military unit there made the transition easier. His father was able to get a tech degree at a community college, and both his parents worked on an electronics assembly line. Tuan started out going to public schools in the area, where he took classes with many other Vietnamese immigrants. He was able to take a Vietnamese class along with his other classes to help the transition.
Not every part of their transition was easy. Coming to America, Tuan and his family spent days in the airport sorting out paperwork to be released from customs. For Tuan, one of the hardest parts was switching schools. He and his sister moved to a private Catholic school where they were two of the four students with dark hair. Despite the help along the way and the free ride at the school, Tuan felt like an outsider.
“We don’t know anybody and once it’s recess and stuff like that, we just like by ourselves,” said Tuan.
Eventually, he was able to make friends and felt more at home in Boston. As for Hugh, he came straight to Alabama in 1975 and has lived here since then.
“I fight in the Vietnam War with America involved, and America run away so I can’t stay,” said Hugh.
Once Hugh made it to the Bayou La Batre area, he worked at any place he could find work. He washed dishes and cooked at places like the Country Club of Mobile. He then went to school to get his associate’s degree in management at the University of South Alabama. After that, he managed three different stores. He also went back to school and got his degree in engineering. Now, he works for the EPA under the Gulf Coast restoration project, and looks forward to retiring.
Hugh said it was a bit scary when he first arrived in Alabama because he didn’t know anything about his new home.
“You’ve got different way to eat, different way to live, but it’s mostly like nothing wrong,” said Hugh. “Everybody got to work … People a little bit scared of us before, but then everybody get used to us.”
Hugh said there were not very many Asian people living in Bayou La Batre at that time. Now, according to U.S. Census data, more than a quarter of the population of Bayou La Batre is Asian. The Asian population began to cluster in Bayou La Batre as a result of the HO program and job availability, especially in the fishing industry.
“It’s a pleasure to stay around here,” said Hugh. “People started coming in and we found out more people stay here-and-there. We get connections.”
Tuan’s family was one of the many to move to Alabama, joining the Asian cluster that was forming. Tuan did not move to the Alabama coast until he was a senior in high school. Once his parents decided to move to Bayou La Batre, Alabama, it was like starting all over again.
“All those years, high school up there, [you] get used to it, made all those friends, and then all of the sudden, you move down here to a new school to finish your last year,” said Tuan. “You’re basically chopping the water, nothing else around it. So that’s how I feel when I first came down.”
Tuan made friends in his new town by joining the soccer team at school. After graduation, he worked at T & T Silk Flowers & Plants, the silk flower and furniture store his parents owned and operated. Now, Tuan still works at the shop on the weekends, but he primarily works for Boat People SOS, helping Asian immigrants in the area by giving them the resources they need to become U.S. citizens.
Both Hugh and Tuan are citizens. Hugh obtained his citizenship more than 30 years ago and said the citizenship process has remained about the same. He remembers having to learn everything “inside out” while working. He said the process wasn’t very hard for him; he became a citizen despite making a mistake when it came time for his interview.
“On the last day, I forgot my paperwork,” said Hugh. “I came in, and the man supposed to give an interview, he from Atlanta, and when I come in I forgot my paperwork, I had to go back and get it. [I was] late and he chewed me up.”
Tuan became a citizen in Boston through his parents. Because Boston is a large city, Tuan said there were classes available in Vietnamese that helped his parents learn and gave them what they needed to go through the process.
“I still remember my mom and dad listen to the audio tape that they get from the class,” said Tuan. “They listen daily and one day, they have their appointment to take the test and they got one of their friends to drive them there to do the test. They even brought us in with them when they swear in too.”
Tuan and Hugh have more than just citizenship in common. Both men married Vietnamese immigrants and started families here. Hugh said his wife’s father was in the military as well, and she moved here with him under the same program.
“I’ll make a long story short … somebody connected [us] and we met, and after a number of months, we decided to get married,” said Hugh.
Hugh and his wife have a daughter and a son. Hugh has gone back to Vietnam to visit, but said his children have never gone to visit. He said they have never wanted to go back because America is all they know.
Tuan visited Vietnam during school breaks as he grew up. He traveled there about 10 times and would spend a month or two in Vietnam each time. It was in Vietnam that he fell in love with Diep Van, a family friend he had known since he was young. He proposed to her in 2002, and she moved with him to America. The two got married in 2005 and now have an 8-year-old daughter named Alyssa.
Tuan said it took Diep a while to adjust to life in America. The only family she had in the U.S. was a great uncle in Minnesota. Also, she wasn’t used to the food.
“My wife when she first came over, she literally can’t eat the American cuisine because the flavor and the texture is totally different, so we basically have to do the home cook,” said Tuan.
Tuan and Hugh also stay involved in politics. Both men voted in the last election and have been paying attention to President Trump’s immigration mandates.
“Having to deal with the terrorists and stuff like that, it’s good to mandate it and keep them away, but that affect other immigrants who truly need the help,” said Tuan.
Hugh voted for Trump in November, saying he chose to vote for him in hopes that he would bring about change. Candidates he had voted for in the past didn’t win, and he said it’s important for people to respect the political process.
“That’s the process of the country,” said Hugh. “You have to change the president every four years ... some people you don’t like and if they become president, that’s still the president.”
Tuan said that at this point, Boat People SOS has not run into any issues with Trump’s immigration ban, which denied political refugees from entering the country from seven different countries. Even when policies like this don’t directly affect certain immigrants, the ideas can still hit close to home for immigrants like Max Rykov, who sought asylum in the past.
The Soviet Union fell in 1991, and as it did, territorial lines began to be redrawn. Certain countries no longer fell under Russian leadership. Tashkent, Uzbekistan, was one of those places. With their once familiar country under foreign rule, families had to make a decision of whether they wanted to stay in their homeland or not. Some families, like Max’s family, took this as an opportunity to immigrate to the U.S.
“When the Soviet Union was intact, the natives, Uzbeks, had to put up with whoever else living in their country, because that was one big happy Soviet Union, right?” said Max. “I was 4 when I came over so I don’t remember it firsthand but it was bad enough where lots of people had to leave.”
Max had an aunt and uncle in Birmingham at the time. They would write his parents, talking about how easy it was to make a living in Alabama. His parents took some English classes, got sponsored by their relatives in America and decided to begin a new journey.
“They had nothing in this other place,” said Max. “They did not want to leave, but obviously the circumstances dictated that we needed to. [Mom] was almost like upset that the process was so easy because she didn’t really want to go.”
Max and his family are Russian Jews. His grandmother immigrated to Uzbekistan with other Jewish people who were fleeing from villages being destroyed by Nazis. She found a train and hopped on once she was promised it was heading somewhere safe. When Max and his family moved to America, his family’s heritage got them in touch with Jewish Family Services.
Max’s mother began working in the skincare business and would eventually start her own business. Max’s father started a photography business. Max grew up attending the Levite Jewish Community Center of Birmingham and went to school at the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School.
Max didn’t always feel like he felt in. Many of Max’s classmates grew up in Mountain Brook in prominent families. He wanted to speak English at home in order to fit in, but his parents insisted he grew up immersed in the culture of their home country, something for which he is now grateful.
“I protested against it mildly because I just wanted to fit in with my friends, but I was very fortunate my parents kept me on it,” said Max. “I was raised in a Russian household, read Russian books, watched Russian movies, didn’t grow up on Disney or anything like that. It preserved that part of me, and that was really cool.”
Max’s mother tried to bring a bit of home to the community as well. She would organize concerts and invite other immigrants to see popular musicians for her generation that were touring in the U.S. She also taught Max and other Russian children grammar and helped them put on plays. Max and seven other kids would act out Alexander Pushkin poems together.
“For a while there, when the kids were young, we were all living in the same apartment complexes,” said Max. “We had a little bit of a thriving community. It’s really kind of dissipated now because that core group is older and moved away.”
Max said while living in Birmingham, he has noticed clusters of immigrants forming. He has noticed large Hispanic communities in the Hoover area, as well as an Israeli French Jewish community in Crestline. He thinks a combination of work, cultural familiarities, like restaurants that serve food from immigrants’ homelands, and family is what creates immigrant communities.
Max works as a communications manager and event organizer for a marketing and public relations firm in the city. He visits Russia and Ukraine as much as he can. He said visiting these places, though they aren’t his home country, make him feel at home because he is Russian in his bones. With that being said, Max has no plans to leave Birmingham.
“I’m pretty invested in this city with my work life and social life and civic life,” said Max “It’s pretty this-city centric just because I live here and I might as well make the place I live as good as possible.”
Max became an American citizen along with his parents after seven years of living in Birmingham. He stays actively involved in politics and attended his first protest this past year. He disagrees with Trump’s policies, which hit close to home as a political refugee.
“I haven’t personally experienced anyone yelling slurs or throwing things at me, fortunately, but I have had friends who that’s happened to and the current administration is certainly empowering a bunch of idiots, God bless them, to act out,” said Max. “As an immigrant, especially as a political refugee, what is happening, the mindset of many people in this country coming from the very top, it’s sad. It’s really sad.”
Following the election of President Donald Trump, Victoria felt anxious about the conditions for immigrants in the United States. She planned from the beginning to resist and fight for immigrants in Alabama, but now the fight seemed even more daunting. The Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice was set up to focus purely on a local level. Now, they have to resist on a larger level.
“We’re outnumbered everywhere,” said Victoria.
Victoria went to the Fair Immigration Reform Movement Summit in Washington, D.C., from March 19 to 21, to discuss immigration reform with organizations like Reform Immigration FOR America. While she was there, she heard unsettling news from Alabama.
From March 17 through March 19, Homeland Security Investigation officers raided seven cities in Northern Alabama as a part of a planned operation. About 40 undocumented immigrants were detained and sent to facilities in Louisiana and Ohio. According to Victoria, the raids continued through the next week. The HSI officers conducted raids to detain national security risks, but some of the people detained didn’t even have criminal records. People were rounded up at traffic stops and at their own homes, answering a knock on the door.
These families are on the fast track to deportation at ICE regional facilities in Louisiana and Ohio. Victoria said that since they’ve been detained, it has been hard to contact them. They only know where some of the people are through family members left behind or random referrals. Outreach in the communities where the raids occurred has been hard, because anyone left behind is afraid.
“When people get a knock on the door, they don’t want to answer anymore,” said Victoria.
The Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice has started a defense fund and petition to try and support these families. It has been hard to raise enough funds for each family because low-income communities were raided and lawyers can ask for thousands of dollars upfront just to hear their case.
While balancing outreach and resistance, Victoria has continued to work on her citizenship application. She has been collecting documents, sometimes having to request new copies. Liliana is doing the same, but she has run into problems with her birth certificate. Victoria said they’re not sure if it was brought over when they moved from Uruguay, and there is no digital copy.
Victoria said that since the raids and policies like the proposed travel bans, she has had fleeting thoughts of counting her losses and just moving back to Uruguay. Though Alabama is her home, she gets nervous at the thought of being arrested for protesting and being separated from her family. These fears aren’t new. When HB-56 was passed in 2011, Victoria began making a habit of always carrying her green card and driver license. Her driver license is branded with “FN,” which stands for foreign national, denoting that she is here legally.
Though she wants to stay and continue to help others, there have been times where it has felt like she is buying security from persecution by going through the immigration process.
“The messages I am seeing from the leaders of this country is that I am not welcome here,” said Victoria.
H-1B On The Clock
Critics and proponents weigh the impact of hiring foreign labor to do American jobs
In 2005, the Dzotsi family moved to Toledo, Ohio, and their son Emmanuel began living in the third country in his 12 years of life. Emmanuel had been 7 when his father got a new job in Belgium, resulting in the Dzotsis relocating from London to Brussels, home to the European Union.
Emmanuel’s education at the International School there was accordingly multicultural. Like most of his classmates, he was just another kid from somewhere else.
Toledo, however, is firmly American, and as is so typical of Americans upon meeting someone from a nation abroad, Emmanuel became, as he described, “the English dude who lives in Toledo.”
He’s 24 now and an associate producer for “Serial,” the blockbuster podcast spun off of “This American Life.” However, Emmanuel wouldn’t even be in the United States if an H-1B worker visa hadn’t brought over his father and the rest of their family from Belgium in 2005.
An H-1B visa is a non-resident visa that allows U.S. companies to bring over foreign workers to do highly educated or highly technical work that there aren’t enough Americans available and qualified to do. The visa lasts from three to six years, and the visa holder and their families are in the United States only for that position. If the job ends or the employee is terminated, so is that worker visa. However, it can serve as a small step towards permanent residency and citizenship. Once someone is already in the United States, it’s easier for them to stay.
“I know many people on a worker visa, they don’t come here to try it out,” Dzotsi said. “That’s a luxury that my family has … Whether or not you decide to become a full citizen, and I would have to believe that the majority of visa holders probably do, being able to move somewhere, live there in the country, and kind of, in a weird way, have them figure out if they want you and have you figure out if you want the country, it’s really invaluable.”
Ideally, this is how immigration would work: Worker moves to the United States. Worker and family find success socially and professionally. Worker and family become Americans and contribute to the Great Experiment. But the H-1B is not in itself a path to citizenship or really even immigration.
The maximum number of H-1B visas to be given out each year is supposedly 85,000, but a common argument from critics is that the actual number is much higher due to a variety of loopholes for physicians, college and university employees, and workers with a master’s degree or doctorate. Critics often claim that the program systematically keeps down wages and that corporations are abusing it at the expense of American workers, and the issue was debated several times in the primaries and general election of 2016. A frequent talking point of President Trump and subject of a proposed executive order, it was often framed as an example of government corruption, and one where corporations paid lobbyists to get legislation passed to the benefit of the rich and to the detriment of the American worker in the fields affected, which are most often in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math).
Dzotsi strongly disagrees with that assessment, though he does admit that the H-1B program might be “bureaucratically unwieldy.”
“Some of the people you’re bringing to the country on these visa programs are the best and the brightest,” Dzotsi said. “You’re getting really great people because it is so hard [to get a visa]. One of my best friends was working for a while after graduation and he was applying for a visa, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that the cure for cancer may be in the mind of someone who is on a visa here in the United States.”
Even some opponents of the H-1B program admit that, when visa holders like the Dzotsis stay and become citizens, the system is working in the best interest of everyone. However, critics aren’t arguing the ends of the process, but the means.
John Steadman, the dean of the engineering school at the University of South Alabama and a former president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, spoke before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2003 on the issue of H-1B visas. The IEEE has made a case for high-education career jobs like these going to who call the United States home, not those on worker visas.
“The issue for many folks, including IEEE members, with H-1B visas is that corporations that use those visas have in many cases used them to avoid hiring a U.S. citizen or permanent resident and used it in such a way that they do unfair competition in the market for high technology knowledge workers,” said Steadman.
Steadman also described this program as hurting American workers on a deeper level than simply hiring foreign workers for jobs in the United States.
“Those students who finish engineering degrees at the University of South Alabama either as U.S. citizens or permanent residents are often sought after, but whether their salaries would be the same without H-1B, that’s a different issue,” said Steadman.
Steadman attributed the increase in H-1B visas to corporate lobbying. One of the leading forces behind H-1B lobbying is Compete America, a coalition that includes Amazon, Intel and Facebook.
Taylor Thornley Keeney, a spokeswoman for Compete America, said that the biggest benefit to the H1-B program is that it helps alleviate the backlog of green cards.
“Until we have comprehensive immigration reform, we want to enable the United States to maintain its competitive edge as a nation,” Keeney said. “We also ensure companies fill these highly skilled jobs with the best talent. In doing that, we’re able to keep companies here and encourage companies to open in the United States.”
Tuscaloosa immigration attorney Carol Armstrong agrees with Keeney’s assessment. Armstrong herself directly assists employers seeking H-1B visas and describes the H-1B visa program as complicated but necessary.
“Employers who don’t get the H-1B may not have another option, and they may not have another person to do the job,” Armstrong said. “It depends on whether or not the employer can do the faster process through the immigration service and the size of the employer. And attorneys’ fees differ on what part of the country you’re in, how many the employer is doing. Is the employer calling the attorney with only two days to the deadline or did they plan ahead? The employer might be looking at somewhere from $6,000 to $9,000 just for one employee, and those costs are on the employer.”
The University of Alabama is host to 73 H1-B visa holders, and Chris Bryant, who works in the Office of Media Relations at the University, said that number is typical for the University of Alabama. Bryant stressed how important these visas are for UA.
“Like all of UA’s 6,687 faculty and staff members, the 73 H-1B visa holders employed at UA strive to improve the State of Alabama through teaching, research and service,” Bryant said in an email. “The majority of H-1B visa holders at UA are faculty, meaning that they serve two key aspects of UA’s core mission of teaching and research, and many of our international faculty have been amazingly prolific in their research publications and discoveries, leading to both increased notoriety of UA as well as significant benefits to the state through patents and external grant awards which help fund more students and staff at UA.”
In contrast, immigrating permanently to the United States can be frustrating and difficult, which could encourage foreign workers like Timothy Shin, who came from South Korea, to use temporary visas as a way into the U.S. instead of visas that involve permanent residency. Shin, a finance manager in Birmingham, found his immigration process redundant and inefficient. He came to the U.S. for education, but once he decided to work and live in Kansas, he had to file for a green card twice and then finally for citizenship, as the the lengthy process overran the limits of his legal residency.
“In my opinion, I’m not sure why they make people apply twice for that residency,” Shin said. “I had to pay money for the application twice, and that’s the only thing that bugged me, that I had to pay twice for that same process.”
Though the process was lengthy, the ultimate end of Shin’s immigration process is one that Steadman and the IEEE would view as the preferred solution to some issues facing employment and immigration in the United States. Steadman believes the H-1B doesn’t protect American workers adequately enough, but rather allows corporations to take advantage of loopholes to get cheaper foreign workers.
“I think the concept behind [the H-1B visa] is fine,” Steadman said. “It’s the execution behind it that has not received proper oversight. I think it would be difficult if not impossible to provide that oversight. People could be hired and be residents or permanent citizens, but that’s not what the H-1B does. It’s a temporary visa that brings them over and sends them back.”
Immigration attorney John Miano has taken a much harsher stance against the H-1B program. A frequent contributor to the Center for Immigration studies, a conservative lobby that supports the limiting of immigration to the United States, Miano claims that the H-1B visa law is written as a way for employers to hire cheaper labor and replace American workers with foreign workers.
“Nothing really happens by accident in the H-1B program. The only reform people say that they want is more visas. You don’t see these bills saying, ‘Let’s end replacing Americans with foreign workers.’ The reason why Congress is not banned that is because businesses want to be able to replace Americans with foreign workers. Immigration lawyers want to be able to replace Americans with foreign workers, and that’s why it has been going on for 22 years,” Miano said.
Miano, who began his career as a computer programmer before attending law school to become an immigration attorney, believes the entire H-1B program has much more sinister intentions than even critics like Steadman let on.
“The problem is that there is very little abuse in the H-1B program because most of what we would call ‘abuse’ is a design of the system,” Miano said. “You might have read that Disney got rid of several hundred Americans and replaced them with H-1B workers. Most of us would say that is abuse, but that’s the way the system is designed.”
Intentions aside, Miano agreed with Steadman’s statement that lobbyists are the root cause of the issues with the H-1B program.U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from California’s 49th District, put forth H.R. 5801 in July 2016. This bill, the Protect and Grow American Jobs Act, says it eliminates the Master’s Degree requirement and raises the minimum salary for H-1B from $60,000 to $100,000 for all applications made within 90 days of the Oct. 1 start date. Miano said that the 90-day requirement essentially leaves the law toothless.
“When H-1 was created in the Immigration Act of 1990 and as it has been amended, lobbyists have left it a mess,” Miano said. “Lobbyists write the bills, and they write them convoluted and full of loopholes. So, what’s happened with H-1B is that it’s this giant tangle and what the Issa bill does is adjust the tangle to absolutely no effect. The problem is that most H-1B applications are made in April for visas that start in October, so six months, much more than 90 days, so it has absolutely no effect on the operation of the H-1B program.”
In short, Miano sees the H-1B system as legitimized corruption, and he feels the whole H-1B visa program is unsalvageable.
“There are a huge number of government reports on it [the H-1B program], none of which are positive,” said Miano. “The first one was done by the Department of Labor in 1996 and it’s called ‘The System is Broken and Needs to be Fixed,’ which was totally ignored by Congress. I mean, basically, it’s like trying to describe polio in positive terms.”
Issa’s bill, as well as a couple of others aimed at reforming or refining the H-1B program, remain stuck in Congressional deadlock, and the election of President Trump, an avowed enemy of the H-1B visa program, has raised doubts as to the program’s continued existence, concerning many proponents of worker visas, such as the “Serial” associate producer Dzotsi and another child of immigrants, medical student Faris Pacha.
A student at the Alabama College of Medicine, Pacha is the son of parents who came to Sylacauga from Syria on a worker visa that preceded the H-1B program, as his father is also a physician. Pacha credits President Trump’s recent travel ban with hurting the kinds of immigration that better the United States as an economy and a society.
“What we bring to the table — immigrants as a whole — are a diversity of ideas,” said Pacha. “We bring elements that make this country great, and I don’t see us stopping coming. I don’t see us hating America. I don’t see us doing anything like that. I see us becoming totally one with this county, and that’s what makes [America] great.”
A self-described supporter of the President, Pacha believes instead of a threat, immigration should be viewed as a benefit to all involved. He points out the large numbers of physicians, technology workers and entrepreneurs that are immigrants and choose to live, work and pay taxes in the United States.
“All the seeds are set in the other country, and then America reaps the benefit,” Pacha said. “Americans don’t want us to stop coming.”
Alabama's ESL teachers struggle for resources
Kristi Garcia pads quietly down the sanitized halls of the Tuscaloosa Department of Education. She cuts through a repurposed conference room, skirts the perimeter of a gray labyrinth of cubicles and opens the door to her office.
On a small side table rests a stack of manila file folders. Today, Garcia will work on finding ESL records for 17 new students. Her morning will be an all too familiar pattern of grainy jazz music, call transfers and disconnected lines. Each new person she talks to will claim records are the responsibility of the person she talked to before. If she cannot find records for the new students, they will have to take an English proficiency test and be placed in a program by a committee.
Garcia is the coordinator for English as a Second Language for Tuscaloosa City Schools. She works with the district’s five ESL instructors and a bilingual social worker to teach English to 291 non-English speaking students. Her job is to make sure each student gets the instruction they need, collect the state required assessment data and find better ways for her six employees to communicate across the 35 languages spoken among Tuscaloosa City Schools ESL students.
Garcia is one of the hundreds of educators in Alabama schools who are struggling to meet the needs of a growing population of non-English speaking students while staying within the boundaries of what state law allows.
English as a Second Language is a broad title given to education programs or classes that are designed to teach English to people who immigrate to the United States for work, school or to become citizens.
Community ESL programs are frequently found at churches and community colleges. They serve the local community by teaching English to community members who need language instruction. Volunteer efforts drive the majority of community ESL programs, and funding is hard to come by making them difficult to maintain for long periods of time.
College ESL programs primarily focus on assisting international students with English language instruction. These programs are usually centered on preparing international students for TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), a required standardized test for admission into American higher education. College programs may also include a cultural component to assist students in overcoming cultural boundaries.
In K-12 education, ESL classes fall under Title III guidelines of the U.S. Department of Education. The program was created by former President George W. Bush as part of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001.
Under Title III, a state can apply for a grant to help set up or improve education opportunities such as ESL classes. The state must submit a plan for instituting ESL programs to qualify for the funding, and send assessment results at the end of each year. The state must reapply each year with a new plan that addresses the assessment results from the previous year’s plan. Alabama was first given a grant under Title III in 2007 for the purpose of establishing ESL classes in Alabama Public Schools.
Title III guidelines are very specific about how and where states can use the funds. States are required to include how the funds were used in each year’s assessment report if they want to continue getting Title III funds for the following school year.
In 2012, an audit by the U.S. Department of Education found that Alabama had not followed the guidelines for distributing funding as described in Title III regulations. Instead, the audit alleged the Title III grant was spent on office supplies and textbooks for regular core classes, some schools had not attempted to set up ESL classes, or had set up classes that were not equipped to help LEP students.
Alabama requires school districts to show a population of 10,000 LEP students before they are eligible for Title III funds. While most districts do not have 10,000 LEP students, the state does allow districts to join together to meet the quota. In 2015, the state set aside $2,005,334 for LEP students which was about $95 per student.
The Alabama public school system is tasked with teaching English to over 21,000 LEP students. Each school district in the state has an ESL coordinator like Kristi Garcia. The ESL programs differ between the districts, but the problems do not. Difficulty finding qualified teachers, lack of funding, and the sometimes drastic differences between district curriculums have resulted in the Alabama Department of Education reporting only six percent of LEP students meet the necessary reading requirements at the 8th-grade level.
English language programs fall into two categories: bilingual and English only. Bilingual programs focus on merging English and American culture with the language and culture the student already has. English only programs do not allow for bilingual programs. English only puts LEP students in with native English speakers with the idea that immersion is the best method for learning. Federal guidelines set the bar public school ESL programs must reach, but it is up to the individual states to choose a bilingual or English only curriculum.
In 1990, Alabama voters passed Amendment 509 to the Alabama Constitution making English the official language of the state. All official correspondence in Alabama must be in English. Though the Policy and Procedures Manual 2015-2016 for Alabama Public Schools does not limit schools in the type of ESL program they design, Alabama schools do not offer bilingual ESL programs.
Bedrettin Yazan, an assistant professor in the curriculum and instruction department at the University of Alabama, teaches elementary education students who want to teach ESL Classes. He said the English only approach is not fair for the students.
“Those students have a language, but in this context we value English over any other language,” Yazan said. “That negates anything these students have. We ask them to forget about their heritage and make them learn American heritage. Can you image having that much knowledge and being told to start from scratch?”
Amy Taylor works as an instructor at the University of Alabama English Language Institute. She said the ESL teachers she knows are committed to their students.
“I think most of us, teacher who work in ESL, understand that ESL students are bringing a lifetime of learning with them,” Taylor said, “We don’t want to replace that.”
Alabama school districts also struggle to find enough qualified teachers to teach ESL classes. Some districts have enough teachers to provide ESL classes as part of a normal school schedule. In Hoover, Alabama, Low English Proficiency students attend ESL classes during a regular class period. It is no different than going to math or science. ESL classes in Tuscaloosa County School District are much more erratic. The Tuscaloosa County district is made up of 33 schools with five ESL teachers who travel from school to school to teach English language classes to LEP students. Yazan said Alabama’s ESL system needs improvement.
“The ESL population is a very, very diverse population, and Alabama is new to that,” Yazan said. “The state needs to take measures to start providing more teachers because, especially in this county, we don’t have teachers. There are teachers in the district offices that go to schools and work with the teachers. There are no ESL classes here.”
Kristi Garcia echoed Yazan’s call for more teachers and added that teachers of other subjects also needed further training on working with LEP students. She said being a WIDA member state has helped some.
WIDA is a cooperative effort between states to advance ESL programs in the United States. Members have access to shared research, teacher training, and can share records if a student moves to another member state. In 2004, WIDA incorporated a shared assessment test that is now the standard for K-12 ESL in all WIDA states.
Becoming certified to teach English language classes is not an easy task. Erika Bell, an ESL instructor in Anniston, Alabama, said Teacher of English Language certification means going to graduate school.
“For a typical content teacher, an undergraduate degree would suffice. For something more specific, along the lines of an EL instructor, you’d need to get a graduate degree to be prepared for the specificity of what your gonna be doing,” Bell said.
Bell said Alabama does allow content area teachers to take courses in ESL teaching, but not many teachers have the time and the program does not prepare them for an ESL classroom. She said the coursework required for her master’s degree gave her experience with the cultural components of ESL teaching, an area the certification courses don’t cover.
The Policy and Procedures Manual 2015-2016 for Alabama public schools states that content area teachers are allowed to pursue ESL certification, but ESL teachers are not permitted to teach content area courses under normal circumstances.
Alabama ESL teachers are finding it difficult to get parents involved in their children’s education. As with the students, teachers must navigate around both cultural and language barriers, but involving parents also involves breaking down stigma on both sides.
Erika Bell said she thinks the problem is a cultural gap. She wants further training for school employees to help bridge cultural differences and get parents involved.
“The culture of school in the United State is very different from the culture of school in the world at large,” Bell said. “Educating teachers about those cultures, educate administrators, PTO representatives, to let those personnel know and understand those cultural differences, why newcomer families are feeling their own and learning about their new country, I think is important. What some may interpret as apathy towards schoolwork is actually they may not understand the expectations we have in the US educational system.”
The topic of English language services is often viewed as English versus Spanish speakers, but this is an oversimplification. In Alabama schools, Hispanic students make up the majority of ESL students, but there are also large populations of Arabic, Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese speakers.
To handle the numerous languages, Alabama schools have access to Language Line, a translator service that will provide language support over the phone. Several school districts have also started releasing Spanish versions of notices to parents.
Despite the translator services, Kristi Garcia said parents of ESL students still do not feel comfortable coming into the schools.
“That language barrier is so intimidating,” Garcia said. “Even though you have that interpreting service available, it’s very intimidating for our families to walk into a school office and not be able to communicate with our staff.
“I wish we could really make sure they understand that they are welcome, and we are going to do everything possible to make sure they are involved in their student’s education programs. Not just coming in for basic meetings, but to really, truly be involved.”
In 1982, a cooperative effort between educators in Alabama and Mississippi launched Alabama-Mississippi Teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages. The organization was founded as a resource for schools and teachers who needed help to start ESL courses, locate certified teachers and share resources for teaching English as a second language.
AMTESOL is made up of members from many institutions in Mississippi and Alabama including Auburn University, Mississippi State University and the University of Alabama. The organization is a chapter of the South-Eastern Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages which is a regional chapter of the international TESOL organization.
In January, AMTESOL held its annual conference at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. There, 300 ESL teachers and educators came together to discuss how to improve English language education in Mississippi and Alabama.
Patti Cooper worked in Alabama schools for 25 years with general education and reading intervention. Now she works for Okapi Educational Publishing as a sales representative. She attended the AMTESOL conference as a representative for dual language teaching materials.
“We can’t have non-english teaching materials, so this puts English and Spanish on the same page,” Cooper said, “It’s a loophole in the law.”
Cooper said the dual language materials were better than having all teaching material in English, but she still wants Alabama to change the English Only law.
“It’s not our job to find loopholes. It’s our job to teach the kids,” Cooper said.
In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Kristi Garcia also sees teachers taking on responsibilities outside the classroom.
“We have so many teachers who care, and love, and go above and beyond that everyday educational setting,” Garcia said. “They’re going to soccer games. They’re going to baseball games. They’re making home visits.”
Alabama ESL teachers agree there needs to be a change, but they don’t always agree on what that change needs to be. Kiffany GeeRudea attended the AMTESOL conference in Hattiesburg. She said the local community needs to change its view of immigrants.
“It’s not us versus them,” GeeRueda said, “We need to see the ESL students as equal to other students, as professionals in the community, not just cleaning the floors.”
Julie Caine, an ESL teacher in Helena, Alabama, said Alabama’s English Only law needs to go.
“There needs to be legislative changes, not just school changes,” Caine said. “Like offering the tests in spanish or read out loud since, you know, we’re all about the testing.”
The number of students in Alabama has grown, and is expected to continue growing. ESL teachers go above and beyond, but are frustrated by the state’s English Only restrictions, shortage of qualified English language teachers, and lack of training for content area teachers.
Erika Bell said Alabama ESL teachers are not trying to be difficult. They just want what is best for their students.
“The heart factor is there with almost every teacher, and every administrator, and every person that I get to work with. They truly love their students and want them to be successful.”
Bridging the Gap
The relationship between law enforcement and Alabama's immigrant communities
Twelve-year-old Angel was riding his bicycle in the parking lot outside his family’s apartment complex in Homewood, Alabama, when a police officer stopped him. The son of Mexican immigrants did not know that this officer was about to give him advice that would change his life.
“You need to be careful when you ride your bike,” the officer, an “older gentleman,” told him. “You are not only young, but you are our future. And if you get hurt, who’s going to be our future?”
Angel cannot recall the name of the officer who walked up to him that day, but the policeman’s wise words stayed with him forever. Since that encounter Angel, now 29, knew he wanted to help others the way the officer helped him.
Today he wears a badge as a member of the Alabaster, Alabama, Police Department.
"LACK OF COMMUNICATION AND LACK OF TRUST"
Though he is from Mexico, Angel is a police officer, a profession which to him knows no ethnicity. Patrolling the streets of Alabaster, he has been on the cusp of what many see as a growing divide between the Hispanic communities and law enforcement in Alabama.
He sees a Hispanic woman with a black eye and walks up to her.
“What happened?” he asks her.
“Nothing happened,” is the reply.
Not only did this incident really happen, it is something Angel encounters often in his job.
“That example was from a Hispanic female who got punched in the face,” he said. “I know her husband did it.”
It is not unusual for a Hispanic person to not speak to police officers, even if they are the victim of a crime. Possibly fearing retaliation from her husband, the woman refused to give the officers any information. Some Hispanic people are afraid of the police. Some are afraid of each other. Whatever the cause of such fear, Angel knows that barriers exist between Hispanic people and police officers.
“Lack of communication and lack of trust,” Angel said.
This lack of communication and trust cannot be attributed to any one factor. However, some speculate the relationship between police and the immigrant population took a blow with the passing of the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, more commonly known as HB 56, in June 2011. Some feel the law created a rift between Hispanic communities and their local police departments.
When the Alabama legislature passed HB 56 five years ago, it was one of the strictest anti-illegal immigration laws in the nation at the time. There was a nationwide outcry over the potential negative impacts it would have on immigrant communities in Alabama. One impact many people tended to overlook was how the law left police officers facing an uphill battle when it came to serving and protecting immigrant communities. When the law was enacted, many within the immigrant communities stopped coming to the police out of fear of being deported.
“I think when that law passed, it made it extra difficult for them to come forward,” Angel said. He said immigrants often feared that officers would immediately check their citizenship status.
“I think they felt that every single time [we] make contact with a Hispanic person, we have to do that. That’s not the case,” he said. “There were different guidelines to it. But, of course, not knowing what the law specifically said, they assumed we were going to do it anyway every single time. So it made it extra difficult for them to talk to us.”
The fear to come forward about crimes, even if they are the victims, is one that is felt in Hispanic communities statewide.
“We’re faced with the dilemma, unfortunately, of the reporting of crimes,” said Tuscaloosa County Sheriff Ron Abernathy. “We try to express the importance of that here in Tuscaloosa County, which allows us to potentially solve future crimes.”
“DID YOU KNOW THAT I CAN TAKE YOU?”
Among its many statutes, the HB 56 authorized police officers to attempt to determine a person’s citizenship status if they had reasonable suspicion to do so. This could have led to the reporting of that person to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The media backlash that resulted after the passing of the law was overwhelmingly negative.
In a scathing 2012 piece entitled “Alabama’s Shame: HB 56 and the War on Immigrants,” the Southern Poverty Law Center referred to the law as “cruel.” It further stated that the law “guarantees racial profiling, discrimination and harassment against all Latinos in Alabama.” In a 2011 report, the American Civil Liberties Union implied that the law would not only allow discrimination, but that crime in immigrant neighborhoods would increase. “Many immigrants will not come forward with vital information about crimes for fear that they or their family members will be subject to detention and investigation … Police depend on the cooperation and trust of these communities to ensure public safety,” the report said.
HB 56 decreed that police officers must determine the citizenship status of any persons they suspect might be undocumented. This led to the deployment of roadblocks intended to check for people driving without a proper state-issued driver’s license. Before HB 56 was passed, the average traffic stop in Alabama took 15 to 20 minutes. After the law was enacted, the time of a traffic stop could increase to two or three hours if the officer suspected a driver was undocumented and had to undergo a verification process. No matter how long it took, a routine traffic stop could feel like an eternity for a Hispanic driver.
Elijio Rico of Verbena described one traffic stop in which he experienced for himself the effects of HB 56.
“Did you know that if you do not have any ID, I can take you?” the officer asked Rico.
Rico said he believes the officer let him go because he had his family in the car with him.
Rico was fortunate. His pastor, Felipe Rangel of Jemison, said the months following the law’s passing were hard on Hispanic families.
“So many families were being separated,” he said. Rangel said many Hispanics were nervous about even going out in public.
“Many families didn’t even go to church during this period,” he said.
These were the hardships Hispanic families had to face if they chose to remain in Alabama. Many others decided to leave the state.
“It was a great impact because many people even fled, leaving all their property,” said Jose Antonio Turbide of Clanton. The ones that left Alabama often found that their homes or property had been repossessed when they returned to the state months or years later.
“Many landlords – they took advantage of the situation, and they repossessed what they had,” said Erika Lopez of Verbena.
“[Hispanic people] were afraid because the police in Chilton County installed roadblocks,” Turbide said. He said if you wanted to see the effects of the law on the Hispanic population, all you had to do was walk into Walmart: “You didn’t even see one Hispanic person.”
“WHAT WE FELT WAS FEAR”
Many Hispanic people chose to lay low in the months following the law’s passing. The Hispanic families that stayed in Alabama had to live under the shadow of HB 56. For some, local police officers became constant reminders of the law, and what used to be routine interactions with the police became frightful situations for Hispanics.
“Police officers usually mean safety for people. Back then when the law was going on in the state, police officers were nothing like that for the Hispanic community,” said Nayely Santiago, an immigrant from Mexico who now resides in Clanton.
“What we felt was fear. And if we [had an emergency], we could not go to the police for help, because we felt fear,” she said.
Santiago said even her daughter, who was only seven years old at the time, became afraid.
“She felt the same fear that I felt because of the law. And she was a citizen, she was born here, but she felt the same thing,” Santiago said.
Santiago recalls an incident shortly after the passing of HB 56 when a routine traffic stop quickly became an unnerving situation. One day while driving through Thorsby, Alabama, Santiago and her husband were pulled over for a broken taillight on their car. The police officer asked the couple to see a driver’s license, but neither Santiago nor her husband had one; all they could hand him was her husband’s passport.
“And then the police officer asked this question that I guess will make any immigrant or any Hispanic people afraid: ‘Do you have papers?’” Santiago recalled.
Fearful of the consequences, the couple did not answer the question.
“The reaction of the police officer was: ‘Do you know that I can take you to jail for not answering me?’” Santiago said. “And if you can think about it, I mean you will feel afraid of the police officers. And it’s terrible because you’re not feeling safe. They’re supposed to, you know, make you feel safe, and he was not doing that.”
Santiago remembers praying for them to be delivered from the situation.
“I was praying, and he finally did let us go. He said ‘Yeah, just go and fix that light.’ And that’s all he said. And we went home. I was almost crying because it was just a terrible experience…”
Santiago was relieved. She and her husband were able to go home without even having to pay a fine for the broken light.
“I was so happy really, that God just helped us through that situation,” she said.
Santiago says that fears in the Hispanic community did diminish, albeit slowly, as the effects of HB 56 gradually wore off.
“It got better, really,” she said. “We were feeling much better since they removed that law, or they cancelled that law; it was good and we felt the same way we felt before that. We were free to go everywhere and [it was] safe to come to church.”
However, in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Santiago believes some of the uneasiness in the Hispanic community has come back. Just like in 2011, she says much of the fear is of police officers and the government they represent. Following the Trump administration’s resolution to crack down on criminal undocumented immigrants, Santiago says she has heard rumors of ICE working with local police departments to find undocumented persons.
“It’s just people getting afraid or being afraid of what can happen if they get pulled over by a police officer,” she said.
Santiago says she has even heard rumors of ICE attempting to recruit Hispanic people to work for them, possibly as informants. However, she knows that all it takes is a rumor to instill fear in entire communities.
“Sometimes rumors can get people crazy,” she said. “We don’t know what’s really going on. We just heard about that and a lot of people got scared.”
Santiago’s daughter Delanie, now twelve years old, is aware of the tension permeating the Hispanic community. In spite of the fear of law enforcement that many in the community feel right now, Santiago tells her daughter that she should not hesitate to go to the police if she ever feels endangered. It helps that Delanie was born in the United States and is therefore a legal citizen.
“I tell her that she should trust the police whenever she’s in danger – she should go or she should call 911 because overall, she’s from here,” Santiago said. “And she should not be afraid whenever she has an emergency to call or to get help from the law or the police officers.”
Though she encourages her daughter to call the police if she has to, Santiago fears for other members of her family who do not yet have legal residence status.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen if we do have an emergency and they come and if they’re going to ask for any immigration papers or anything like that, you know?” she said.
In spite of a time of great uncertainty, it is Santiago’s faith that gives her hope that things can turn around.
“I don’t think that as humans, or as people we can change other people,” she said. “But I think that God can change people.”
She believes that if President Trump will soften his attitude on undocumented immigrants, it will improve the relationship between Hispanic people and law enforcement at the local level.
“Everybody is looking towards him (the president) and how is he talking and how he’s acting and I think the change can come from him,” Santiago said. “Because if he teaches people to be kind, to be respectful to others… I think he can really be an impact to the country. And if he can change, it could change many lives, I guess. Our only hope is faith, what we believe, and what God can do. It’s difficult, I guess, in this situation. Sometimes difficult, but it is possible. God can really do amazing things.”
“EVERYBODY HERE IS A GOOD OFFICER”
In the years after HB 56 was passed, the relationship between the police and Hispanics had gradually improved with time. However, there is still a lingering uneasiness that some Hispanics still feel around law enforcement. Police officers often encounter this air of uncertainty when investigating crimes in Hispanic neighborhoods. According to Angel, officers have to try and convince immigrants to trust them. It is rarely easy, especially in situations when Hispanics simply won’t talk to them.
“We try our best,” said Angel. “Every single time we respond to a call like that, we try to help them out, and it’s either they want to talk to us or they don’t want to talk to us.”
Angel says he does not believe the presidential election affected the relationship between police and Hispanic communities as some might think.
“I think the relationship between law enforcement and Hispanics has been affected since day one,” he said. “It has nothing to do with any decisions that the president makes.”
Angel believes that when Hispanic people are the victims of crime, they are not as afraid of deportation as they are of retaliation from others in their own community or that the police will not be able to help them.
“Their fear that somebody from their own community is going to go against them,” he said. “Their fear that they’re not going to know how to express themselves to law enforcement, and their fear that we’re not going to be able to help them because they’re here as illegal immigrants. They think that’s the case, but it’s not.”
According to Angel, police will help anyone regardless of their citizenship status. He says that it is not the job of local police officers to enforce federal immigration laws.
“We enforce the laws for the state of Alabama, traffic and criminal laws,” Angel said. “We don’t enforce the federal immigration laws. Immigration cannot tell us ‘Go arrest him and deport him.’ And to my knowledge, I don’t know of any department that’s working with immigration at all.”
Angel says that a person’s legal status does not come into play if that person needs help from the police. He also says that he would not threaten to arrest someone just because they did not have their citizenship papers.
“I can’t speak for every officer, and I can’t speak for every individual police department, but I can tell you that in Alabaster, Alabama, we don’t tell anybody that,” he said. “That is something we will not tell anybody. Everybody here is a good officer, a good policeman, and they’re not going to bring their own values down to demean somebody else.”
“HOW MANY PEOPLE CAN I HELP CHANGE THEIR LIVES?”
Angel knows the ins and outs of the Hispanic community, and not just because of his work as a police officer. Angel was born in Mexico City, Mexico, and spent the first seven years of his life in that country. Then his family decided to move to the United States, seeking to build a better life for themselves.
“My father did what he had to do,” Angel said. “He became a citizen. We got a resident status in the United States. We flew to the United States, we started making our life here.”
After arriving in America, Angel’s father started out by washing cars, then waiting tables. His mother stayed home and worked hard to raise three children in their apartment in Homewood, Alabama. Angel had been in the country for only a month when he started school at Hall-Kent Elementary – a day he remembers being particularly terrifying.
“I remember being scared on my first day of school, not knowing the language, and not knowing what I needed to know...just walking around lost, confused,” he said.
Then Angel realized something: there were other Hispanic kids in the school. He was not alone.
He decided that the best thing to do was to find other Hispanic children and simply ask for help. It didn’t take long for Angel to learn that the best way to get by in this new country was to accept help from others, then pay it forward. He remembers slowly learning English from other kids who knew more of the language than he did. He would no longer be a kid who was “lost” and “confused.”
“And then when I learn English, I help the new guy out,” he said. “So it’s always been a ‘helping out’ career and life experience for me.”
This desire for service and helping others would eventually carve the path for his career, but his two favorite television shows would also become an inspiration. While growing up, Angel would often stay up into the early hours of the morning, even on school nights, to watch M*A*S*H and COPS. He says M*A*S*H first inspired his love for the military, but after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, Angel decided to answer his country’s call.
“When 9/11 happened, that was the deciding factor, that I was going to serve,” Angel said. “It was just one of those things that you couldn’t just sit back and let a person with different beliefs come to destroy what your family worked hard for. And I wasn’t going to let that happen.”
After graduating high school, Angel joined the United States Marine Corps. He would go on to serve a tour of duty in Iraq, and still remains in the Marine Corps as a reservist. For Angel, serving in the military is just his way of giving back to the country that has given him so much.
“I served for the country not for the potential, or the possibility for me to become a citizen,” Angel said. “I served because I love this country. I didn’t do it for the citizenship. I did it for the country.”
After his tour of duty, Angel decided to continue serving others by becoming a police officer. Though it was years ago, he still remembers the kind words the police officer spoke to him while riding his bike in the parking lot that day: “You are our future.”
That encounter with this officer is one of the reasons why he, too, wears a badge every day.
“Ever since that person said that to me, it’s been staying with me,” he said. “And it was just one of the deciding factors, you know? If he can change my life, and help me become a better person by just telling me that, how many people can I do that to? How many people can I help change their lives to make something better for themselves?”
For Angel, it has been a life of working hard and helping others. His father would go on to own his own construction business, and his mother became self-employed. He feels his family’s story is testament of the possibilities found in the United States.
“I started like everybody else,” he said. “I might not have started with the same legal status as everybody. But I started from the bottom, and I moved my way up. I learned English, I learned to love this country, and I served for the country.”
Angel takes this attitude of a servant with him when he patrols the streets of Alabaster. To him, being a police officer is a way of protecting his family, as well as other families.
“It’s one of those things that, I wouldn’t want a stranger coming up to my house and causing harm to my family,” Angel said. “So I’m going to another city and do the same thing [for other families], just as well as the officer in that city is doing the same thing for my family. So I do it for my family, and for [other officers], to provide a safe and sound night for their family.”
Angel says police officers exist to protect families, not tear them apart, as some people feel they might do to Hispanic families in the months following the 2016 election.
“Law enforcement is not here to break a family up, or it’s not here to take a child’s father or mother away from them, unless that father or that mother violated that child’s rights,” Angel says.
“WE WILL HELP EVERYBODY”
Angel helps to serve as a bridge between his police department and the Hispanic residents of Alabaster. As the only officer in the Alabaster Police Department who can speak fluent Spanish, Angel is often called in by his coworkers to act as a translator between them and Hispanic people. He says it is also sometimes comforting to Hispanic victims to know there is an officer who can understand their language and help them.
“It makes it a little bit easier for the victim…to know that, ‘Hey, I’m talking to somebody that’s just like me, and he can help me out a lot more than somebody else can,’ because of the lack of English, the lack of communication,” Angel said.
Though his ability to speak Spanish helps to earn the trust of Hispanic people, Angel’s ethnicity does not come into play when he does his job. He does not see himself as a “Hispanic officer.” He sees himself as a police officer.
“I do my job like I was taught to do it,” Angel said. “My heritage has nothing to do with the way that I work.”
His colleague, Corporal Jeremy Houser, agrees that Angel’s ethnicity is not a factor on the job.
“It’s not any different, other than that he’s speaking Spanish,” Houser said.
Angel says he is there to help Hispanic people if they need it, but he will not sympathize with a Hispanic person who breaks the law just because they share the same ethnicity. However, this doesn’t stop some of them from trying to get on his good side.
“That’s how it always is,” Angel said. “They think that because I’m a police officer that was born in Mexico, that instead of me arresting them, I should be helping them; I should be cutting them a break, and saying, ‘Okay, you did bad, but don’t do it again. I think you should just walk away.’ That’s not the case. They only say that because I’m Hispanic.”
When it becomes clear that Angel is not going to cut them a break, it doesn’t take long for words to get ugly.
“I can honestly tell you that I get more verbally abused by my own Hispanic people than anybody else because of my job and my position,” he said. “They’ve called me hot chicken, they’ve said that my face looks like a cactus, they’ve called me goat face, they’ve said that I’m racist, everything. And I still help them out. It’s my job. You have to have thick skin for it.”
To Angel, the law does not acknowledge ethnicity. He says that anyone who needs help will receive it, regardless of their race or citizenship status.
“The Hispanic population thinks that we as officers are not going to help them,” he said. “We will help everybody, no matter what the race is, or the ethnicity. We will help them all. All they have to do is call and let us know what the situation is.”
Angel is aware that many Hispanic people are hesitant about coming in contact with police. Sometimes it is fear of being deported, but it can also be fear of others within their community.
“It’s hard for me to get anybody to tell me anything that has to do with drugs, that has to do with crimes, and everything else like that,” he said. “Because there are members of the Hispanic community that are known to be dealing with drugs, guns, and everything else like that, so they put that fear in their own community. I think there’s more fear between any gang activity or any bad guys with the Hispanic community, with their own group than it is with law enforcement.”
“I don’t think it has anything to do with ‘Well if I call the police, I’m going to get deported.’ I think that’s the least of their worries at this time,” he said.
Though the police cannot guarantee victims or witnesses safety if they do decide to come forward, Angel said the police will do what they can to protect them, even if it means taking them out of town to a safer location.
“We promise nothing, but we ask them to help us out to find out what the solution is, so we can help them,” he said. “If we need to relocate them, if we need to take them to the next city so they can stay with their grandparents or aunts or family members, that’s the only way we can help them out.”
Angel assured that police do not offer protection to witnesses or victims as a bribe to get information.
“That’s not how law enforcement works,” he said. “I’m here to help you. I can help you, but only if you talk to me and help me out, try to figure out what really is going on. And if there’s anything I can do for you, I will do it.”
“IT CAN BE PRETTY FRAGILE”
In spite the fear of deportation and of fear of other community members, another reason why Hispanic people often fail to report crimes simply stems from the cultures of the countries they emigrated from.
“Because of where they’re from, they may look at law enforcement differently,” said Chief Deputy Byron Waid of the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Department. “They may not trust law enforcement because of the culture they were brought up in, and whatever country they come from.”
Sheriff Matthew Wade of Calhoun County agrees.
“I think they are scared, a lot of times, to go to law enforcement,” he said. “I think they’re scared to go to law enforcement in their own country. I think law enforcement in their own country they would consider to be corrupt.”
When asked about how police officers deal with immigrants in such a situation, Waid said they simply work to convince them that the police are there to help.
“It just takes a minute,” he said. “Sometimes it takes a little longer to make that connection, and for them to understand that you’re just there trying to do your job and you’re trying to help them. Once that connection is made, typically everything goes well.”
Waid said that law enforcement work continually to build healthy relationships with the Hispanic community, particularly through the efforts of school resource officers working with the children of immigrants in local schools.
“Children end up being the bridge for parents to understand that we’re the good guys,” he said.
Northport Assistant Chief of Police Keith Carpenter said that officers simply having a presence in the Hispanic communities can help build a sense of trust.
“We try to make connections with the community because that’s how we learn what problems are going on in that community, and try to find ways to help solve those problems,” Carpenter said.
He added that the Northport Police Department stages special events such as cookouts in immigrant neighborhoods as a way of reaching out to the Hispanic population. The events include Spanish-speaking officers who talk to residents about drugs and other issues community members may be facing.
“Anytime that you can make connections with whatever neighborhood or community that may be, I think you can ease tensions and build trust there. But it’s something that takes time, and it can be pretty fragile,” Carpenter said.
Captain L.G. Owens of the Oxford Police Department said that all persons are entitled to police protection, regardless of their citizenship status.
“If they do come forward, we will help them just like we do anybody else,” he said.
“We’re here to serve and protect. We do take our job very seriously here.”
Owens also referred to an incident in December of 2012 when an undocumented immigrant shot and seriously wounded Heflin police officer Jackie Stovall. According to an Associated Press article, Stovall was shot by Romero Roberto Moya, 33, during a chase. Moya, who was wanted on suspicion of committing three murders, died in a shootout with police. As of 2016, Stovall has still not returned to his job as a police officer.
“Officer Stovall has not yet recovered,” Owens said.
Owens, who attended the police academy with Stovall, said Stovall’s life is “ruined.”
He added that law enforcement is willing to help all people who need it, but that people must also be willing to follow the law.
“If [police officers] are doing their job, and they’re doing their job correctly, and for the right reasons, they’re not against anybody being here,” said Owens. “If they do it legally, if they go about it the right way.”
As an example of someone who did it “the right way,” Sheriff Wade refers to the husband of one of his investigators in the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office, an immigrant from Mexico who now pastors a Hispanic church in Piedmont, Alabama. Wade said that two of the couple’s four children have been employed by the sheriff’s department, one of which went on to work for the FBI. A third child is currently serving in the United States Army.
“They were people who came to this country as immigrants who went through the process and got their citizenship and are doing well,” Wade said.
Wade said that his deputies are there to serve all residents, and that race or citizenship status does not play a role in how someone is treated or whether or not someone receives help.
“We judge people based on the content of their character, not the color of their skin or their cultural background,” Wade said, invoking the immortal words of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. “And I’m proud to say we do that. I don’t have to go around saying that we do that, because we just do.”
“A SPECIAL KIND OF PERSON”
Angel says he does not let skin color or citizenship status come into play when someone comes to him for help. He is aware that many Hispanic people are nervous about contact with the police. He also understands what it is like to feel alienated, and not just because he is a Hispanic immigrant himself.
“I understand how the Hispanic community feels, I really do,” he said. “I do know how they feel, how they get treated, how they get called out, how they get called names, [how people] make them feel unwanted, like they’re not supposed to be here.”
Angel says he has experienced this discrimination simply because of the badge he wears.
“Because of me being Hispanic and having a law enforcement job,” he said.
Angel knows it’s a tough job, but it is what he does, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Being an officer is a special job,” he said. “It takes a special kind of person to stand up for what’s right, and take a bullet for somebody, and wake up every morning, not see their kids, not see their families throughout the day, because you are here to make sure that everybody else’s families are safe. It takes a different kind of person.”
Special kinds of people is what it is going to take to bridge the gap between Hispanic communities and law enforcement in Alabama. The relationship between Hispanic people and police officers has a long way to go, but Angel said there is a light at the end of the tunnel. He said building trust starts by simply connecting with people in the community, especially children.
“There’s a couple of kids that I know and I’ll sit there and talk to them and they’ll talk to me,” he said.
Angel said he will ask the children: “‘Hey, have y’all seen anything going around here that y’all want to tell me?’ They still won’t tell me. But they’ll sit around there and play with me and eat my candy.”
Angel said that when parents see their children talking to a Hispanic officer, it can be the start of building a relationship.
“I’ll see the kids and I’ll talk to them,” he said. “And they’ll listen to me and they’ll talk to me, and they’ll tell their parents, ‘Hey…he’s from Mexico. He’s like us. He’s here to help us.’”
Angel said he thinks such relationship-building will bridge the gap between law enforcement and the Hispanic community.
“I hope they can just trust everybody,” he said.
“Not just me, trust every officer.”
The immigration detainees of Etowah County Detention Center spend years with no relief
Sylvester Owino came to the United States in 1998 on a student visa to run track and get away from police brutality in Kenya. In 2003, Owino robbed a gas station while intoxicated. He was trying to get money for drugs and alcohol. He made off with $20 and was immediately arrested. He was charged with second-degree robbery and was sentenced to 36 months in prison, and upon his release in 2005, U.S. Immigration Control and Enforcement officials would detain him before he could even have a taste of freedom.
Pursuant to 8 U.S.C. § 1227(a)(2)(A)(iii), which states “any alien who is convicted of an aggravated felony at any time after admission is deportable,” Owino was eligible for deportation.
Owino feared for his life and applied for asylum to avoid going back to Kenya. In his application, Owino described being badly beaten as a result of criticizing the government in Kenyan media. His brother had even written him a letter warning him not to return to his homeland because he would surely be killed by the government. The immigration judge in his case denied relief, stating that Owino was not eligible for asylum due to his crimes.
Owino continued to fight his case while being detained in California, but was transferred after the 2012 Rodriguez v. Robbins case in 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. This civil lawsuit ruled that any immigrant who was detained while they were fighting their case with the Board of Immigration Appeals for more than six months is eligible for a bond hearing. This case made Owino eligible for bond and he says he believe that he and other detainees were transferred out of California to keep them in detention. This case does not apply to anyone who has a final deportation order against them. This means that U.S. Immigration Control and Enforcement agency is supposed to deport them within 90 days of the order, but sometimes they are unable to deport the individuals.
Owino was transferred in May 2013 to the Etowah County Detention Center, outside Gadsden in northeastern Alabama. He was waiting for a bond hearing in California to see if he would be able to await his deportation hearings at home. Owino was fighting his deportation because he feared for his safety in Kenya.
According to Owino, the detention center was rife with corruption and abuses. He alleged that the officers would bring in cell phones and charge detainees $300 per smuggled cellphone.Owino said that the officers would drop off things like cell phones, alcohol and other contraband during their daily counts. Owino alleges that some officers in the detention center would drop off cash or have marijuana sent through the mail for the detainees.
Owino said that the food given to him in detention was not enough food for an eight-year-old child. The daily meal was a bowl of oatmeal in the morning, boiled veggie soup for lunch and for dinner. There was chicken one time a week for the detainees to eat. Owino said he believes that the low food rations were to make the detainees dependent on the commissary, which sold junk foods. Detainees were hit with high prices at the commissary and would have to pay 97 cents for a pack of ramen. In comparison, Owino remembers paying 25 cents in other detention centers for the same ramen. On top of expensive commissary prices, there are no jobs for detainees at Etowah County. Owino said that if no one was sending detainees money, then there was no way to buy food or post legal mail.
In 2012 the ICE Office of Detention Oversight, a division of the ICE Office of Personal Responsibility, conducted a compliance inspection that found deficiencies at Etowah County Detention Center. According to the ICE website, the Office of Personal Responsibility investigates allegations of misconduct by ICE employees.
ODO found that Etowah does not have a policy for detainees to file grievances with the detention center, which is a violation of the standards. They also found that the detention center only maintained a six-day food supply in violation of the 15-day food supply standard. Lack of storage space was cited as the reason for the violation.
Owino said that the officers didn’t care about the detainees and would often request that the detainees be put on lockdown to avoid having to monitor them. Owino, who suffers from asthma, would request that the small slot in the door be opened for air during lockdowns, but the officers refused to open it for him. Owino said he feels like they did not care about the detainees or think of them as human.
Violence also permeated the detention center. Owino alleges that the guards would sometimes label one man a snitch on the floor and encourage other detainees to fight them. He also said that the guards would even bring in razor blades for the detainees. He recalls one incident, in which his friend Mohammed was attacked with a razor blade after a guard accused him of being a snitch. Owino says that his friend was then airlifted to a hospital. Mohammed came back to Etowah covered in scars from the incident, but refused to file a complaint.
The Etowah County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to numerous requests for comments about this story.
In 2015, Owino was allowed a bond hearing in California while his case was still being appealed. He was transferred back to California where he went before an immigration judge he had seen two times prior. She had denied him bond both times and he was worried that he would remain in detention. Surprisingly the judge granted him bond and apologized for his long detainment. He said that he felt so relieved that the madness of his detainment was over.
When asked about his feelings about Etowah, Owino said, “It is a human garbage disposal. I feel sorry for my brothers still there. There is no reason it should still be open.”
Situated in downtown Gadsden, the Etowah County Detention Center appears out of place just down the street from the ladies boutiques that line Main Street. The detention center is a concrete building with small rectangular windows. The lights are on and detainees bang against the window as one walks by. The Department of Human Resources building bears the mark of the Crips and the Detention Center is four stories high. The detainees plead for help.
According to US Census Data, one in five people in Etowah County lives below the poverty line.
Etowah County has been described as a southern town that feels more like an industrial city in Ohio. Once there was a flurry of production with steel mills and other factories employing most of the community, but as jobs are outsourced to other countries, Etowah county has suffered. Most jobs are no longer protected by unions, but rather are in the service industry.
Etowah County receives $5.2 million from ICE each year for housing immigration detainees in the detention center. The facility has the capacity to house 350 adult male immigrant detainees and is paid $45 a day per detainee. The national average cost per detainee is $164 a day. This means that Etowah County Detention center operates at less than a third of the national average cost. Operating at such a low cost allows the detention center to make more of a profit and keep their ICE contract.
The facility is also a 287(g) facility; this label allows a state and local law enforcement entity to enter into a partnership with ICE. The state or local entity receives delegated authority for immigration enforcement within their jurisdictions.
Paromita Shah, associate director of The National Immigration Project, said she has concerns over the sheriff’s department having financial incentives to keep the detention center operating.
“Because of some law in Etowah, the detention center is allowed to keep any profits made through the detention center. This leads them to want to operate at a low cost to keep the profits,” said Shah.
“The South has its own experiment in jailing people and it has moved from black people to jailing immigrants because that’s where the money is. It’s a way to make money,” said Shah.
The detention facility has 52 people on their staff; and according to the 2015 contract between the Etowah County Detention Center and ICE, the hourly rate for guards and transportation is $17.10.
On Nov. 8, citizens of Alabama voted yes on Amendment 7, which places employees of the Etowah County Sheriff’s office under the authority and supervision of the Personnel Board of the office instead of the county. This means that the raises of employees under the Sheriff’s offices are no longer tied to the raises of other county employees. They can receive raises whenever the Sheriff’s department sees fit.
In 2010, ICE wanted to cancel the contract with Etowah County due to expensive transportation costs and other grievances. This decision was met with blowback from the community. The loss of jobs and money would negatively affect the community. Ultimately the contract was protected by U.S. Representative Robert Aderholt.
This year, advocates of the Etowah County detainees filed a Freedom of Information Act with the Department of Homeland Security to obtain a document from the DHS’s Civil Rights Office. This document reportedly alleges abuses by the detention officers. According to a statement to AL.com, the document calls for the immediate termination of the contract with Etowah County Sheriff’s Office.
Teke Gulema, an Ethiopian National, was detained at Etowah County Detention Center in 2012. In 2015, he contracted a bacterial infection that left him paralyzed from the neck down. He was released from ICE custody in November 2015 and died in early 2016 in Gadsden Memorial Hospital.
Katherine Weathers, a member of the Shut Down Etowah campaign, said she visited with Gulema before he died.
“He was just laying there fairly comatose and we asked the nurses if
we could see him and they were fairly uptight about it, but they let us see him,” said Weathers.
Weathers said that the nurses called the director of nursing while they were visiting with Gulema.
“We went in and did our little visit. We didn’t stay long and we were basically thrown out of the hospital. He passed away a week later.”
Weathers said that visiting with Gulema was a spiritual experience for her and that he would follow her with his eyes.
“He was extremely aware,” said Weathers.
Christina Mansfield, co-founder and executive director of CIVIC, said that she has concerns about the medical care at the detention center.
“We filed a complaint with the Attorney General in July of 2015, which outline many things, but focused on the lack of medical care and the medical neglect on the part of the medical staff. There is also inadequate staffing at the facility, which leads to people not being safe,” said Mansfield.
Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) is the national immigration detention visitation network, which is working to end U.S. immigration detention by monitoring human rights abuses, elevating stories, building community-based alternatives to detention and advocating for system change.
A detainee at Etowah decided to speak out about the conditions plaguing him and others in the detention center. Speaking on a contraband cell phone, he asked to have his name withheld for his safety. He said he is worried that if they catch him on the cell phone, the guards will put him in solitary confinement.
This detainee has been in Etowah since 2013 and is awaiting deportation early this year. Whispering into the cell phone, he described his case.
“I came to the United States on political asylum about 30 years ago, but four years ago I was detained and have been in detention.”
This detainee came to the U.S. when he was a teenager and is now facing deportation to a country where he has no relatives and prospects.
“If I go back to my country I will have no chances and will end up living on the street if I don’t get thrown in jail by my government.”
While sitting in Etowah, life outside has gone on for his family. He has grandchildren that he will never meet. His parents, both in their 80s, need him to help take care of them, but he is stuck in the limbo of detention.
The detainee says he has no ill will towards the Etowah County Detention Officers, but rather ICE officials are the ones who treat them horribly. He said that when they are sick, the medical workers in the center try to help, but the ICE officials won’t approve their medical care.
This detainee knew Teke Gulema and alleges that he died of meningitis and everyone in the detention center knew it.
“They didn’t do anything for him and released him.”
While he does not wish to be deported, this detainee signed his deportation paperwork over a year ago. He cited his exhaustion with the process.
“It’s in god’s hands, now. I don’t want to fight anymore.”
His main complaint is the lack of bond hearings in Alabama for immigration detainees. He said that ICE doesn’t care about detainees and their rights as people.
“They have no right to hold us here like animals.”
Shah said the organization has had their eyes on Etowah County Detention Center for a long time.
“Etowah is where the government sends people for long-term detention, people that they don’t want to deal with anymore,” said Shah.
“They are brought to Etowah on purpose so the government can get around the more favorable laws in other states.”
When Bryan Cox, southern region communications director of ICE, was asked to comment on the allegations made against the Detention Center.
“The facility is regularly inspected by multiple agencies and the claims are not true,” said Cox.
When asked why someone would make up the allegations Cox said: “We are the government and don’t speculate at why people make allegations.”
In an emailed statement Cox said, “The premise of your question is not accurate – there are no human rights abuses taking place. Regarding allegations made otherwise, similar claims are periodically made by activist groups; all of which have been thoroughly investigated by multiple entities and repeatedly found to be without merit.”
Eunice Cho, staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, is in contact with detainees in the Etowah County Detention Center.
Cho said the SPLC receives correspondence with current detainees and that there are abuses that are alleged.
“The detainees have filed complaints including food complaints, lack of protection against violence, targeted violence by the guards and detainees being forcibly fingerprinted for deportation documents,“ Cho said.
When asked about the length of stay for detainees, Cho said that she has heard of detainees being incarcerated in detention centers for as long as nine years.
Incarcerations longer than six months are in violation of the 2001 Zadvydas v. Davis ruling by the Supreme Court that asserts that immigrants cannot be detained under a deportation order for a period longer than six months unless removal will be done in the near future.
Cho speaks of the SPLC’s role in this issue; ”We are in a unique position because we can bring impact litigation on these issues.”
Cox said that the food fed to the detainees is the exact food that is fed to the staff when asked about the food at Etowah.
Lucia Hermos, at the ACLU in Montgomery, said the ACLU is a founding member of the Shut Down Etowah campaign, which works to close the detention center.
Hermos also said, “We have heard time and time again how horrible the food is and how high the prices at the commissary. I talked to a family member who said that she tried to send soap and deodorant to the center, but they did not accept that because they have to buy it from their commissary.”
Hermos said that detainees have told her that the food is sometimes rotten and is poor quality.
Christina Mansfield of CIVIC said she also has concerns over the detainee’s nutrition.
“The Etowah County Sheriff’s Department accepts food donations from the local churches, where the food is on its last leg and that’s what they are serving to the detainees rather than going through a wholesaler,” said Mansfield.
Jessica Vosburgh, staff attorney at National Day Laborer Organizing Network, is currently representing two men in the Etowah County Detention Center. She shared their stories.
Abdiweli Abdullahi was born in a refugee camp in Kenya after his family fled Somalia in 1992. There is no record of his birth and neither Kenya or Somalia recognizes him as a citizen, which complicates his deportation process.
Along with this entire family, Abdullahi came to the U.S. as a refugee at 15. He lived in Memphis with his wife when he was arrested in 2013 on an aggravated burglary charge. Aggravated burglary is defined in Tennessee as a home invasion. Vosburgh said that he was given probation for his crime and was not detained by ICE until February 2014. His crime is seen as a crime of moral turpitude or “a nebulous concept, which refers generally to conduct that shocks the public conscience” according to the Appendix D of the Criminal Resource Manual. This Appendix went into effect in 1934.
“ICE picked him up at his probation officer’s,” said Vosburgh.
Abdullahi has been in detention for two and a half years and is currently filing a Habeas Corpus case in the Eleventh U.S. District Court in Alabama.
Abdullahi was transferred to Le Salle Detention Center in October 2016 to prepare him for deportation to Somalia. According to Vosburgh, it is extremely difficult to deport people to the unstable country and no one was deported there in Fall 2016.
“They can keep saying that they have scheduled a flight. So they’re holding off on the [Habeas] case. They keep moving him back and forth in Lousiana, going through the motions to deport him,” said Vosburgh.
Vosburgh said that many of the detainees are filing with the court without legal representation and they have to go up against the Attorney General’s Office of the U.S. District Court.
“This is something you see in Etowah cases are filed per se [without an attorney] and they are lost or sit in the courts, which goes against Habeas Corpus. The government’s claims about documents are taken at face value; the court doesn’t get to the bottom of the case. There is a high level of deference to the government,” said Vosburgh.
Lisa Moyers, an activist with Shut Down Etowah, said that Etowah has been identified as one of the worst places over and over again. She said she questions why the detention center is even still open.
“Most people in Alabama don’t even know that there is detention center there and that many people spend many years there,” Moyers said. “We want to raise awareness and a public outcry.”
Another one of Vosburgh’s clients was in Etowah, while his attorneys fought his case in New York 2nd Circuit Appeals.
Silvio Hidalgo is a 50-year-old detainee from New York City and has been in Etowah for two years. He was detained after getting into an altercation with a man at a bodega in NYC. When he was arrested he was given the notice to appear by ICE and has been detained ever since.
In October, Vosburgh said that Hidalgo has a good chance of winning his case. His wife and all of his children are American citizens. Hidalgo has suffered while in detention due to his 13-year-old son having a life-threatening heart defect. Vosburgh said that being away from his son is difficult.
Hidalgo’s appeal was not successful, and he is now facing deportation. He will be sent back to the Dominican Republic, where he has not lived in 20 years. He has no money, but does have some family in the Dominican Republic.
Hidalgo and Abdullah had green cards when they were detained.
“There is real hope; there is a window of possibility of the termination of the contract,” said Vosburgh about the Etowah County Detention Center Contract.
On April 11, 2017, CIVIC filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. In this complaint, they list Etowah County Detention Center as the sixth worst detention center for complaints of sexual and physical abuse.
In a statement to AL.com, Sheriff Todd Entrekin said, “”Any complaint of sexual assault or calls made to the PREA hotline, inside the Etowah County Detention Center, have been investigated and all have been unfounded. Anyone can take statistics and construe them. Even CIVIC makes note that it is difficult to draw any conclusions from the released data.”
The Etowah County Sheriff’s Office has not returned attempts to contact them for comment on these allegations.
Open Hearts, Welcomed Souls
Alabama religious leaders let faith guide their way when it comes to immigration
Save souls. Restore souls. Reach souls without a pastor.
These three things characterize the overall mission of Felipe Rangel’s church, which is to “be and make disciples of Jesus Christ.” Standing by the pulpit inside Christian Life Fellowship, a Pentecostal church in Calera, Alabama, Rangel speaks in Spanish while addressing his congregation, some of whom immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador.
Gazing toward the pulpit from where they sit among rows of cushioned chairs, Rangel’s congregation listens intently to his sermon, occasionally exchanging a reverent “Amen” with him as they take in his message.
He is their spiritual leader, and they trust him.
While Rangel said he does not know the legal status of those within his congregation, he is certain of one thing: Religious worship and fellowship provides those who have immigrated to the U.S. with hope and spiritual strength as they face hardships within society.
“We do not live in a perfect world,” said Rangel, 49, of Jemison, Alabama. “And we just need to have faith in God and be directed by the scripture on how we need to behave. That way, basically, others that are here in this country can see that we are people with good Christian ethics, and we’re here to promote what this country promotes.”
There were approximately 13.3 million legal permanent residents, or immigrants who hold “green cards,” in the U.S. in 2012, according to a 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Approximately 11.1 million undocumented immigrants were living in the U.S. in 2014, and approximately 65,000 were living in Alabama that same year, according to 2016 data from the Pew Research Center. This same report revealed that undocumented immigrant populations in the U.S. decreased from 12.2 million in 2007, as well as from 90,000 in Alabama in 2010.
Decreases of undocumented immigrants were noted among Alabama and six other states – South Carolina, Nevada, Kansas, Illinois, Georgia and California – between 2009 and 2014, although Alabama in particular experienced increases among undocumented immigrants from other countries, in addition to decreases among those from Mexico, according to another 2016 report from the Pew Research Center.
Alabama is a firmly Republican state, according to a 2016 Gallup report. Data from a 2016 report by the Pew Research Center informed that 56 percent of registered U.S. voters who identified as either Republican, or leaned in favor of Republicans ideals, perceived immigrants as negatively impacting the U.S., as compared with 32 percent who perceive immigrants as bolstering the country. This was also in comparison with registered voters who identified as Democrats or leaned toward Democratic ideals, in which 17 percent regarded immigrants as negatively impacting the U.S., while 78 percent believed immigrants were helping the country through their talents and work ethic.
In the 2016 presidential election, The New York Times reported that nearly two-thirds of Alabama voters voted for President Donald J. Trump. After winning the election, Trump announced during a Nov. 13, 2016, “60 Minutes” interview with CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl that he intended to deport 2 to 3 million undocumented immigrants with criminal backgrounds.
Mark Davis, 56, pastor of Christian Life Fellowship in Calera, also values the law. As a pastor, though, he does not ask about people’s immigration status and emphasizes the importance of reaching out to those who are marginalized in society.
“I’m a missionary kid,” Davis said. “I grew up in India, so I was an alien, if you will, in a strange country growing up. So I, to a degree, understand the way the Hispanic community might feel being, you know, outside of their comfort zone, outside of their own country, having to learn a language that they don’t know. And most of them that I’ve met are here to better their lives, to better the fortunes of their family. So it’s hard to begrudge them that.
“We do understand the need for legality. I don’t think anyone’s ever happy when someone breaks the law. But as far as we’re concerned, the greater goal – the higher law – is to present them to the gospel and love them into the kingdom of God.”
“SHARED MY HEART”
Since February 2016, Davis’ church has shared their facility with Rangel’s congregation. Born and raised in Mexico, Rangel immigrated to Houston, Texas, in 1990. He has lived in Alabama since 2000.
According to Davis, Rangel contacted him and explained that his congregation had previously held services at another church. But when that church changed pastors, the new pastor was not willing to let the facility be used for Hispanic church services.
“And so he asked if our church would be interested in partnering with them and mothering them as they continued to reach the Hispanic community in Calera and the surrounding areas,” Davis said. “And, man, we jumped at it. I saw it as an opportunity sent by God.”
Rangel is grateful to Davis and his congregation for accepting his request to use their church for worship. Rangel said he served as a spiritual leader to temporary farm workers from Mexico in northern Chilton County in 2003. Afterward, he said he began ministering to families from Mexico who came to Alabama legally to work on peach farms. Nevertheless, while some workers returned to their home country, Rangel said their families have called to tell him about the positive change in their family members’ behavior.
Building a congregation in Calera, Rangel remembers how he eventually sought Davis and requested to use their church as a meeting place for worship.
“I shared my heart with him and the church, and they were glad for us to come and have our services in the building,” Rangel said. “And from there, everything has gone really well. They have a great heart. To minister to many people, as well as us. And everything has been working really well.”
Since Rangel’s congregation began meeting at Christian Life Fellowship, Davis said their congregations have had an Easter service together, as well as a Hispanic outreach soccer camp last summer. Their congregations have also enjoyed a joint service that featured a Hispanic fiesta during the church’s birthday celebration. In fact, Davis added that many people from the church where Rangel’s congregation previously met also attended the fiesta.
“We’re trying to build these congregations together; helping the congregations appreciate one another,” Davis said.
While Rangel’s congregation numbers no more than 75 members, the “influence is larger than that,” Davis said. “Most everyone knows Felipe, and when they’re in trouble, they know that they can call him. He’s more than willing to help.”
Rangel said some of his congregation consists of people who were brought to the U.S. as infants, and others were born in the U.S.
Both Rangel and Davis said they did not know if any of Rangel’s congregation is in the U.S. illegally. Neither of them inquire about such details.
“We try to minister [to] their heart because some people may get discouraged if we started asking that kind of questions,” Rangel said.
“I place a greater value on their soul than I do their citizenship,” Davis said, although he also noted the importance of “respecting the law of the land.” Still, regardless of a person’s legal status, Davis said he focuses “on the individual” while sharing the gospel.
“My primary concern is these folks are here,” Davis said. “What can we do to influence them for Christ? What can we do to love them and minister to them? What can we do to walk with them through this as brothers and sisters in Christ? You know, we’re not going to teach them to run from the law. We’re not going to provide false information to mislead anyone. All I care about is their soul and their spiritual well-being.”
Davis said “compromise is the heart of a healthy society” and suggested people should make a genuine effort to have constructive, open-minded discussions about issues like immigration.
“If we could keep things at a principled level instead of at a personal level, we’d find ourselves able to work through situations and issues and come to some real solutions regarding these things,” Davis said.
Rangel said current political sentiments have roused confusion and fear within his congregation, and he focuses on helping people cope with this anxiety.
“The political landscape right now is confusing,” Rangel said. “Politicians need to fix the immigration system and enforce it.”
A reporter for The Birmingham News and AL.com, Greg Garrison has covered religion in Alabama since 1985. He said immigration has been highlighted “pretty frequently in religion coverage” over the years, as churches have begun having services for Spanish-speaking congregations and other minority groups, particularly during the last decade as larger numbers of immigrants have come to the U.S.
According to Garrison, immigration has “deeply affected” church communities because “it represents a ministry opportunity, a chance to speak on the social gospel, and also it’s something that could lead to a larger church.”
This is especially true, Garrison said, for churches that emphasize the social gospel – taking care of the poor, doing a lot of outreach for the needy.
“And so the Catholic church and liberal Protestant denominations are very strong in their outreach to immigrant populations,” Garrison said.
The Catholic church is strongly embraced within Hispanic countries, Garrison said, which contributes to the Catholic church’s being “very outspoken and active on the immigrant issue.”
“So they tend to have stronger ministries and outreaches to the immigrant community,” Garrison said.
“THE DEAREST PEOPLE”
As Garrison highlighted how the Catholic church actively communicates with immigrant populations, 75-year-old Adrian Straley provides religious services to Hispanic Catholics as a deacon at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Tuscaloosa.
Through his role, he serves in the Hispanic ministry within the Southwest Deanery, which encompasses about 10 counties. He also helps conduct Catholic services about once a month at the women’s federal prison in Aliceville, the Federal Correctional Institution, through his affiliation with a team that includes St. Francis of Assisi University Parish; Catholic sisters from Eutaw; ministers from Shelby and Jefferson counties; as well as a retired bishop from Birmingham and a retired priest from Cullman County.
Discerning that he wanted to serve the Hispanic community before he became ordained as a deacon and was assigned to the Hispanic ministry by the bishop in 2000, Straley said he is the only Spanish-speaking deacon at Holy Spirit and performs virtually all of the Spanish baptisms, which range from approximately 80 to 90 per year. Occasionally a visiting Spanish-speaking priest will conduct a baptism, he said, but the church’s priest does not speak Spanish.
Straley said he also provides baptism instruction preparation in Spanish, during which he explains to parents what a baptism represents and ensures that parents are committed to raising their child as a Catholic Christian.
“Now the priest does the equivalent instruction in English,” Straley said, “but they don’t have a third as many baptisms in English as we do in Spanish.”
Among other services, Straley said he performs about six-to-10 Hispanic weddings each year, assists with marriage preparation, conducts six-to-eight Hispanic funerals, and preaches Spanish sermons during Sunday mass. Although he regarded his Spanish preaching as a bit “stilted” in comparison to his English preaching, Straley said he is provided with abundant opportunities to deliver Spanish sermons to Holy Spirit’s Hispanic community.
“This has been the biggest blessing for me that I could ever have asked,” Straley said. “It just kind of like it’s fallen into my lap. And the Hispanic community are the dearest people.”
Straley estimated that approximately 650-to-700 Hispanic people, including children, attend the 1 p.m. Hispanic mass on an average Sunday. He based his estimate on the fact that the church seats 1,000, and the sanctuary is “well over half-full every Sunday.” He said that figure significantly increases on Christmas, Easter and special holy days, especially the mass for Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Straley said this latter annual holy event is a “big blockbuster for the Hispanic community,” and the church tries to conduct it as a bilingual celebration. Still, nine-tenths of attendees are Hispanic, Straley said and there is typically “standing room only” as some who do not regularly attend mass are present for the event.
In fact, Straley said the expanding community of Hispanic Catholics and large turnouts for celebrations like the mass for Our Lady of Guadalupe served as significant factors in church leaders’ decision to build a considerably larger church. Before the current 1,000-seat Holy Spirit was built in 2008, Straley said the former building seated only 400.
Even before then, though, the Hispanic Catholic community was expanding, Straley said. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Spanish mass was held biweekly at Tuscaloosa’s St. John the Baptist Church, which can seat about 100. He said the Spanish services transitioned to Holy Spirit in 2001, and services became weekly in 2008, when the church’s new building was completed and a Spanish-speaking priest was available for every Sunday.
Straley also noted that if all of the English-speaking Catholics who attended masses at St. John the Baptist Church and Holy Spirit gathered into one group, they would likely still outnumber the Hispanic Catholics – “But not by much.”
Straley said most of the Hispanic Catholics at Holy Spirit have ties to Mexico or Guatemala, while others are from Columbia, Cuba and Venezuela.
“We don’t ask them to fill out a form and say, ‘What is your nationality?’” Straley said. “We are in the business of ministering to souls. And souls don’t come with passports.”
Through his role at Holy Spirit, Straley has witnessed how Alabama’s 2011 immigration bill, HB 56, spurred anxiety and resulted with a “severe loss from our community here” and others throughout Tuscaloosa.
“The whole state suffered a considerable loss,” Straley said. “But then key parts of that bill were ruled out, were overthrown by a court. And people realized, ‘Well, the worst is not happening; the sky is not falling.’ And so they gradually came back. So within a year later, we were back to where we were before, and we keep on going up. Now, of course, with some of the nasty rhetoric from this [Trump] administration, some of the anxiety is back, but they can’t just move out of state because that’s nationwide.”
Straley also explained how anxieties within the Hispanic community include whether they may do something like cause a traffic incident, as well as whether they can trust police if they are ever victimized. In fact, Straley said law enforcement officials have visited Holy Spirit to speak with the Hispanic community and encouraged them to report incidences of crime so that police can provide protection.
Regarding police as being “kind of caught in the middle” as they try to build trust within the Hispanic community, Straley said such dilemmas are why he is displeased with the “anti-immigration climate” in American society. While noting his outlook that the U.S. cannot have an “open border,” he also shared about his compassion for those who have lived, raised families, worked and paid taxes in the U.S. for several years.
If the church had a larger staff of trained and qualified people, Straley said, then perhaps they could offer more assistance to help address concerns within the Hispanic community.
“But as it is, we do well to attend mainly to the spiritual needs,” he said.
A "DIFFICULT" TOPIC
Like Pastor Davis, 65-year-old Richard Dill of Oneonta, Alabama, is familiar with how it feels to enter a foreign land. A minister for over 40 years, Dill spent 27 years in Germany as a missionary. While there, he had to learn the language and customs of the culture.
“You are utterly and completely helpless,” Dill said while discussing the difficulties in adapting to a foreign environment. “You can’t ask where the bathroom is. You can’t order a meal at a restaurant. You certainly couldn’t share with anyone your fears and so forth. So it is indeed a bit frightening at first and intimidating.”
Serving as the pastor of Cleveland First Baptist Church in Blount County, Dill said he is not opposed to adhering to the law in regards to immigration matters. He said his congregation includes immigrant families, and he empathizes with those who have immigrated to the U.S.
“We have an immigrant who serves as a deacon in our church,” Dill said. “So that is something that enriches our church and is a help to us.”
For the past five years, Cleveland First Baptist has provided a program, Christian Women’s Job Corps, that helps struggling women who seek self-improvement. Approximately half of the ladies in the program are Hispanic immigrants.
“It’s a national program,” Dill said. “We just have the only chapter in Blount County. And it’s intended to help women who want to improve their lives. It can help them get a GED, and we offer ESL [English as a Second Language] for immigrants or anyone who doesn’t speak English. They also get basic job skills, computer skills training, and skills to help their personal improvement, like their self-esteem.”
Emphasizing the importance of caring about immigrants and welcoming them to the church, Dill also said immigration is a difficult topic to discuss with others in and outside of church.
“It’s difficult to talk constructively about immigration in the present political climate, both in society and in the church,” Dill said, “because we’ve been given either false or skewed information concerning the situation, and the whole topic is laced with fear. I don’t think we’ve been told the truth. But, too, you have a climate of fear, and the very last person you have to fear is a person who is Hispanic.
“Now I do think we need to enforce immigration laws in a humane and compassionate way. But you can’t treat everyone the same. You have to consider individual situations and people’s histories, like those who were brought by their families into the U.S. as children and have lived in the U.S. for decades. In many cases, it would be irresponsible and immoral for us to do what we’re threatening to do.”
Dill believes “there can be a fair and just way with dealing with illegal immigration,” particularly by differentiating between those who recently crossed the border or commit violent crimes, and those who have lived in the country for years and “have been law-abiding, educated and hardworking in society.”
Sixty-six percent of undocumented immigrants had resided within the U.S. for about a decade in 2014, according to a 2016 report from the Pew Research Center.
“And I am disgusted in the way they are sometimes stereotyped and treated because many of them came not of their own free will,” Dill said. “They were children when they were brought. It’s not that they’re responsible for the situation in which they now find themselves trapped.”
Referencing how the Bible encourages one to show compassion toward those who are foreign to an environment, Dill also highlighted the negative impact of political rhetoric.
“And I can guarantee you that if you are a foreigner in a foreign land, you definitely do not want to hear politicians saying, ‘We’re going to round them up in buses and ship them out,’” Dill said. “So, in my opinion, and of course I understand that there have to be – there are laws about immigration and there’s a way to deal with that.
“But in my opinion, we have for decades welcomed these people with open arms. They have been able to work and to reside in America with no thought at all because we needed them in the economy. We needed those workers. And I feel that they are being treated quite as scapegoats now for things that they’re not even responsible for. And they are, for the most part, honest, hardworking people who are trying to build a better life for themselves.”
DEFEATING “HATE” WITH “LOVE”
Throughout his life, 66-year-old Ashfaq Taufique has striven to build a better life for himself and others. Born and raised in Pakistan, Taufique immigrated to the U.S. in 1975 to study engineering at the University of Texas in Arlington. A retired mechanical engineer since 2006, he serves as the president of the Birmingham Islamic Society, an elective position he has held since 2001.
“They continue to elect me, and I happily accept it,” Taufique said. “I see this position not as a position of privilege. It is a position of responsibility. I am fortunate to have retired. Therefore, I’ve got the time to dedicate to my passion and serve the community.”
Taufique is sympathetic to those who immigrate to the U.S. to pursue a better life for themselves and their families. He said about two-thirds of those who represent his religious community are immigrants, and he estimated that there are approximately 5,000 practicing Muslims within the greater Birmingham area.
Similar to Pastor Dill, Taufique said he is in favor of a “crackdown” on those who are living illegally in this country and commit crimes based on motives that do not align with achieving a positive and productive livelihood.
“But for those who are living in this country without committing crime, as a matter of fact becoming a productive part of our country, becoming part of a labor force, then we need to have a path to citizenship, path to work visa, path to some kind of legal status,” he said.
Another way the U.S. can address illegal immigration, Taufique said, is to help improve economic conditions in immigrants’ homelands through constructive partnerships – “without strings attached.”
“Don’t just go there for cheap labor,” he said. “Get their community to become better right there in their own country. And they will not want to come here illegally.”
Taufique devotes his role within the BIS toward meeting the needs of Muslims in the Birmingham area by promoting the three aspects that characterize the organization’s charter.
The first aspect, he explained, is to provide religious, personal and social services to the Muslim community. These range from ensuring that Muslims have facilities and someone available to deliver sermons during worship services; to offering social outings like picnics that encourage fellowship; to providing counseling and offering help on a variety of matters like burial concerns, divorce and determination of inheritance from an Islamic perspective.
The second aspect of the BIS’s charter, Taufique said, prioritizes outreach to the community at large to help enhance people’s understanding of Muslims and Islam. Taufique said this particular aspect is very important to the Muslim community, and its importance was present prior to 9/11, although it has acquired a stronger emphasis since then.
The Muslim community, Taufique said, represents a significant “fabric” of U.S. society.
“We are physicians, we are your engineers, we are your architects, we are your neighbors,” he said. “Our children play tee-ball with you.”
The third aspect of the BIS’s charter, Taufique said, “is to become the political voice of the Muslim community.” He explained that the BIS defends Muslims from discrimination and helps ensure that they enjoy the same religious rights as other communities. This third aspect has received greater emphasis due to the current political landscape, which Taufique said has stirred “a great amount of anxiety among the Muslim community.”
That anxiety, Taufique said, is because of anti-Islamic rhetoric.
“But I take that hate, I take that Islamophobia, as a positive influence on our community,” Taufique said. “And let me tell you how and why. The more hate is spewed, the more people are coming to our masjid and giving us messages of love and compassion. Our website is overwhelmingly inundated with emails of support and love.”
Taufique said the BIS received a death threat via email on Feb. 18. AL.com reporter Greg Garrison posted a story about the incident on Feb. 20, which highlighted “an outpouring of community support.”
“We will respond [to] hate with love,” Taufique said. “We are going to not stoop to their level.”
Taufique also shared his perspective on the Trump administration’s travel ban that temporarily barred immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim countries.
“I am, and the Muslim communities and all the marginalized community, are in 100-percent favor of making America safe,” Taufique said. “Without a doubt, we are committed to the safety of this country. So we want our president to make it safe without violating the constitution.”
On its website’s home page, bisweb.org, the BIS has posted links to documents – “An Open Letter Condemning ISIS Ideology” and “Our Stand Against Terrorism” – that represent its rebuke against terrorist acts.
“It’s very ironic that Islam is being subjected to different rule of standards, different standards,” Taufique said. “ISIS has done whatever they do in the name of Islam, for whatever political or economic goals they want to achieve. At the same time, Ku Klux Klan does that in the name of Christianity. But Christians are not asked – I do not know how many times people go to pastors and ask them to condemn KKK.”
ISIS is no more representative of Islam, Taufique said, than the KKK is representative of Christianity.
Taufique encourages others to visit Islamic centers and talk with Muslims as a means to gain more insight about Islam and Muslims, rather than derive opinions solely from political rhetoric.
“Do not judge Islam and Muslim based on the actions of few,” he said.
RHETORIC AND FEAR
Political rhetoric and other messages have prompted researchers such as Jennifer Hoewe, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama, to examine their effects.
Specializing in studying media, psychology and political science, Hoewe examines how media consumption impacts people’s behaviors and attitudes. In discussing her research, she noted how political rhetoric and labels used in news reports are influencing how people perceive immigrants and refugees, particularly in connection with terrorism.
Noting that people generally tend to be more sympathetic when the label “refugees” is used, Hoewe said politicians’ rhetoric lately has promoted fearful outlooks concerning refugees and immigrants.
“I think with our negative conceptions of immigration, it’s Mexico,” she said in identifying a particular area that has been targeted by political rhetoric. “And that Mexico in particular has become this outgroup, as opposed to the American ingroup, and that people – some people perceive of that as something bad, something we don’t want to come into our country. And now not everyone. Again, that’s very politically motivated, and the news tries to adjust to how they talk about it, but they don’t do a great job.”
Hoewe was among other researchers who previously researched news coverage of Mexican immigrants. While discussing findings from a 2010 study she and others conducted, during which they evaluated stories from four national U.S. newspapers that focused on Mexican immigration between June 1, 2008, and June 1, 2009, Hoewe said a majority of news stories focused on crime, rather than reporting about other factors such as people’s experiences in managing life difficulties or healthcare matters.
“And that of course is going to have an impact on the people who read it,” Hoewe said. “They’re going to then make those associations that, ‘Okay, most immigrants are criminals.’ Even though that’s, of course, not true.”
“COMPASSION” AND “THE LAW OF THE LAND”
Congruent with Hoewe’s statement regarding immigration and crime, a 2015 report from the American Immigration Council informed that while the quantity of illegal immigrants in the U.S. significantly increased from 3.5 million to 11.2 million, rates of violent crime and property crime decreased by 48 percent and 41 percent, respectively.
Charlie Wilson, 49, who is the pastor at Aliceville First Baptist Church and has taught eight-week Bible courses through Samford University’s Ministry Training Institute at the women’s federal prison in Aliceville, or Federal Correctional Institution, said many prisoners there are Hispanic. He noted that this was not an indication that such prisoners were facing immigration-related charges.
According to a Sept. 28, 2016, article in the Pickens County Herald by Doug Sanders, Jr., titled, “Federal prison official speaks at Rotary meeting,” Executive Assistant/Satellite Operations Administrator Laconya Williams provided information about the prison to the Aliceville Rotary Club on Sept. 20. This information included how the prison held 1,470 total inmates, in which 1,265 were being held at the “main facility” while 205 were at the institution’s “camp” site. The article also informed that 689 inmates – 47 percent – were Hispanic, and others included 14 Native American, 23 Asian, 355 Black and 416 White inmates.
Ten percent of inmates, the Herald article further highlighted, were being held due to an “immigration violation,” while 53 percent were being held due to drugs, 14 percent due to fraud, and six percent due to “other reasons.”
Initially serving as a visiting minister at the prison before he began teaching Bible courses, Wilson said he has been told that FCI “houses a video immigration court location.”
“So in other words,” he said, “when they’re dealing with an immigration prisoner, there is some kind of room there in the prison that sets them up with some sort of video conferencing that they actually take care of their court appearances there inside the prison via video that, you know, maybe the court’s actually being held in Atlanta, I don’t know. But they take care of that. And because of that being that facility, it explains why there is a larger percentage of immigration inmates at this facility.”
Through his role at FCI, Wilson said he interacts with the Hispanic population, particularly those who primarily speak English because he is not fluent in Spanish. He estimated that approximately 15-to-20 percent of those who attend his classes are Hispanic. He also said he is not allowed to ask prisoners about their legal charges.
“I’ve only had one person that has come up to me,” he said, “that’s taken one of my classes, and said, ‘You know, this might be my last week I’m here because if my case comes though I’m either getting to get to go home or I’m going to be deported.’”
From Wilson’s perspective on immigration, it is essential “to have compassion on people that are in these situations,” although he, like pastors David and Dill, emphasized the importance of adhering to “the law of the land.”
“I would say that my view is that we have laws in our country of who is allowed to come in and who is allowed to be an American citizen,” Wilson said. “And throughout the years that those laws have been there, there have been, I would guess, thousands upon hundreds of thousands of people that have come into our nation and have gone through the process of becoming an American citizen.
“Obviously, there are some that have come in and have not gone through the proper channels. To me, I don’t know what the answer to that is. I think you need to, you know, do the laws of the country. Now does that mean that you round up people and send them back home? I don’t know. I don’t necessarily say that’s the answer, but I think there needs to be a way that you kind of reward the people that are following the law and put more stringent things on people that aren’t doing it the right way.”
“COUNTRY OF IMMIGRANTS”
Bhagabat C. Sahu, MD, a board of trustees member of the Hindu Cultural Centre of North Alabama in Harvest, Alabama, also views it as important to follow the law. While discussing religious aspects of Hinduism, Sahu emphasized how one “should follow the rules and regulations” at home, in the temple, and when seeking entrance into the U.S.
Having immigrated to the U.S. from India as a urologist on an immigrant visa at “the invitation of the U.S. government” on Jan. 9, 1977, Sahu came to North Alabama in 1982 and later helped establish the HCCNA in 1995 as a place to worship the religion of Hinduism. Sahu said the U.S. has been “very generous” and inviting of people from areas “all over the world” as they seek job opportunities, higher education and greater livelihoods.
Sahu likewise said people will go wherever they can pursue the best opportunities in life, and he noted that the U.S. has the highest number of immigrants entering than any other country.
“This is a country of immigrants,” Sahu said. “That’s how this country has improved to become one of the greatest. It was built by the hard work, sincerity, talent and ingenuity that is required to excel.”
The temple at HCCNA, Sarvajana Mandir, is the “temple for all people,” Sahu said, and therefore “everybody is welcome” to come and learn about Hinduism. Those who practice the faith, he explained, view the world as a “global village” and recognize all others as representing a “global family.” Therefore, the respectful treatment of all guests is prioritized, in which Sahu explained that this outlook reflects the following sacred practices of Hinduism: “Respect your God; respect your father and mother; respect your teacher; and respect your guest.”
“Hinduism is a very tolerant and peaceful religion,” Sahu said.
Similar to Sahu, Pavan Kumar Vangala, a priest at Sarvajana Mandir since 2007, came to the U.S. from India, having previously served as a priest in India from 2002 to 2007. He entered the country with an R-1 visa, which can be granted to people who wish to work in religious roles under a temporary status, according to the U.S. Dept. of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.
According to Vangala, who spoke in Hindi and was translated by Suri Perinkulam, a volunteer at the HCCNA for approximately four years, his R-1 visa was valid for five years when he first came. Sahu explained that Vangala went back to India and applied for immigration status, which was approved, and he afterward returned to Alabama as an immigrant to continue providing religious services at the temple.
From his experience, Vangala said longer R-1 visa periods would help the religious workers and their families by removing the burden of guessing what may happen after a visa expires. Vangala explained that when he came to the U.S. on the R-1 visa, it was valid for five years, and over the years the time limit for such visas has been reduced – from five to three years, and now it is 18 months. In this respect, he said that longer R-1 visas can help families as they make decisions regarding their livelihoods.
Like Sahu, Vangala highlighted his view that one must adhere to the law regarding immigration matters.
“The immigration procedures and processes are good, and the governmental procedures and visa terms are to be followed,” Vangala said.
Highlighting how Hinduism prioritizes the respect and value of all people, in which those who practice it greet others with palms pressed together while reverentially stating, “Namaste” – “I salute you, and I consider you as a part of God” – Sahu likewise explained how an essential tenet of the religion emphasizes wellness among everyone: “May all be happy; may all be free from sickness; may all realize purity; and may no one suffer.”
“Om shanti, shanti, shanti,” Sahu said. “Peace, peace and peace. Let there be peace everywhere, and let everybody enjoy the peace.”
Samantha Hill is a native of Dumfries, Virginia, and a 2016 graduate of Virginia Tech, where she received a B.A. in Multimedia Journalism. Samantha served as the opinions editor and managing editor of VT’s student newspaper, Collegiate Times. She interned at WSLS 10, worked for HokieVision, and served as a production assistant for WZDX Fox 54.
Thomas Howard was born in Hanover Park, Illinois, and raised in Estes Park, Colorado. He graduated from Mississippi State University in 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. His professional interests include community journalism, photojournalism, documentary filmmaking and opinion writing. He lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with his dog, Alice.
Keith Huffman has worked as a staff writer and columnist for the weekly Pickens County Herald. He graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. from the University of Alabama in 2010, majoring in psychology with a minor in journalism. He has interned with WVUA 23 and Alabama Public Radio. He lives with his wife, Kim, and their 2-year-old son, Kaleb.
Chelsea Jarvis is a 2015 graduate of the University of Alabama, where she received dual degrees in economics and political science with a minor in Russian. Since 2015, she has worked for Recovery Campus Magazine in Birmingham, Alabama. She has a deep love for public radio and audio storytelling.
Cameron Kiszla is a native of Mobile, Alabama, and a 2013 graduate of the University of Alabama, where he double majored in journalism and psychology. He has contributed to many publications, including The Tuscaloosa News, The Mobile Press-Register and Mobile Bay Magazine. Cameron’s interests include politics, sports and music.
Benjamin Pockstaller was raised in Centreville, Alabama. He received his B.A. from the University of Alabama in 2014, where he majored in history and minored in journalism. When he is not roaming battlefields or longing for another place and time, Benjamin enjoys interviewing military veterans and others who have played a role in our nation’s history.