Photo: Napolitano and Gutierrez at Press Conference
On November 21, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (IL-04) led a delegation of 11 Members of Congress to Birmingham, Alabama to investigate how the state’s new restrictive immigration law is being implemented. An ad hoc hearing was held in Birmingham’s City Council Chambers and a mass meeting at the historic 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham launched the “One Family, One Alabama” campaign to repeal the law, HB56. An amicus brief supporting the federal lawsuit to overturn the law was also submitted on November 21 and was signed by 39 House Democrats, including the 11 who traveled to Alabama.
On Friday, December 2 at 9:30 a.m. Members of the delegation who traveled to Alabama held a press conference to discuss their trip and what they learned. In addition to Rep. Gutierrez, the Members of Congress present at the press conference included: Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas; Rep. Terri A. Sewell of Alabama, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, who each spoke at the event today.
Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez is the Chairman of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The following are Rep. Gutierrez’ prepared remarks from the press conference today.
I first want to thank my friends who traveled with me to Alabama just before Thanksgiving, some of whom are here today.
We learned a lot at our ad hoc hearing and at the historic 16th Street Baptist Church the evening we were there and some of us learned that Birmingham, despite its central location, is not the easiest city to get to.
But I got to say, I have been in Congress a while and have attended a lot of hearings and to have 11 Members of Congress at a hearing for two full hours is a minor miracle in and of itself.
But they were there with me and listened with me as the Mayor of Birmingham, the Superintendent of the Schools, and the County Sheriff gave their perspectives on how Alabama’s toughest-in-the-nation anti-immigrant law was going to make their lives harder. When municipal governments, educators and law enforcement think the state legislature has gone too far, I think there is pretty clear evidence that they have gone too far.
We also heard from members of the community, business owners and parents and teachers, even a radio DJ who had walked clear across the state of Alabama to gather stories. They described the fear and the hurt and the confusion and the students whose families had literally disappeared from the state overnight. A law passed in the name of law and order in the state of Alabama has clearly created a lot less order, a lot more chaos, and is deeply troubling from the perspective of law enforcement.
Next week, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus is meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to discuss Alabama, deportations, and other issues. Chairman Charlie Gonzalez, who was with us in Alabama but could not be here this morning, helped set up next week’s meeting and I for one plan to appeal to the Secretary again to go personally to Alabama. Go and take ICE Director John Morton. I invite the President to go as well and see firsthand what has happened in Alabama.
I have been to both Alabama and South Carolina two times each in the last month or so and was just in South Carolina on Wednesday. What immigrants need to know and need to hear from the Secretary is that the federal policies that say immigration authorities will exercise discretion, will target resources at serious criminals for deportation, and will take into account an individual’s deep roots in the community - they need to hear that the federal policy will take precedence.
In some of these southern towns you literally have the local sheriff’s deputies sitting outside the mobile home park where all the Latinos live and just waiting for someone to not use a turn signal, or to go 5 miles over the speed limit so they can pull them over. Then they are booked for not having a license, turned over to federal authorities to be deported, and maybe never to return to their U.S. families.
But guess what, the State of Alabama, the State of South Carolina—even Joe Arpaio himself in Arizona—cannot deport you. That is the federal government’s job. That is what we all emphasized in the amicus brief we signed and submitted in support of the federal lawsuit against the Alabama law.
That is what Secretary Napolitano and the President must emphasize as well.
My advice to immigrants in Alabama or anywhere else is that if you have U.S. citizen children, carry a copy of their birth certificate with you at all times. If your wife is a U.S. citizen, carry a copy of your marriage certificate. If you have a mortgage, if you have a diploma, if you have papers that show your deep roots in the U.S., carry copies of them with you.
We know from the Pew Center’s report released just yesterday that two-thirds of the undocumented have lived in the U.S. for a decade or more and that half have minor children, most of whom are citizens.
Look, the local cops are still gonna get you for driving without a license or not coming to a complete stop before a right turn on red. But when they take you to Secretary Napolitano’s officers at ICE, what should happen is that you show them that you have strong ties and when they run your record and it shows no criminal history, you should be allowed to go free right then and there, back to your wife and children.
That is how it should work and that is how the people of Alabama and the people of South Carolina can work with the Constitution to fight back against what the politicians have done to stir up the immigration debate and to pretend like they are putting thousands of people in line to be deported.
And that is a lesson I learned in Alabama and that is a lesson I plan to take to Georgia, South Carolina, and wherever else they pass these poorly thought out laws.
The evening we left Alabama, we gathered for a remarkable event at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, a building rich with history, scarred by the bombs of segregationists, and steeped in the faith that brought about the civil rights revolution a generation ago.
What happened a generation ago is that the federal law—the law of the land that called for integrated public accommodations, open housing, desegregated schools, and water fountains that were equal and no longer separate—the federal law trumped the narrow interests of state politicians that enforced Jim Crow and barred children from school.
All that is old is new again.
The federal law once again gives us the path forward and gives individuals, organizations, and clergy in every state the tool to fight back when local politics and politicians go off the rails.
Those are just some of my impressions having traveled to Alabama and met with the people and the officials and the veterans of past struggles.
I have one additional observation I would like to share. And that is that Terri Sewell is a gracious host, a great ambassador for the state of Alabama, for Birmingham and for her entire District, and is—though only a freshman in this body—a lawmaker and stateswoman of considerable grace and skill.
I would now like to turn it over to my colleagues…
# # #
The delegation that traveled to Alabama included (in alphabetical order):
Rep. Joe Baca of California;
Congressional Black Caucus Secretary Yvette D. Clarke of New York;
Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Charlie Gonzalez of Texas;
Rep. Al Green of Texas;
Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Raul Grijalva of Arizona;
Congressional Hispanic Caucus Immigration Task Force Chair Luis V. Gutierrez of Illinois
Immigration Subcommittee Member Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas
Immigration Subcommittee Ranking Democrat Zoe Lofgren of California;
Rep. Grace Napolitano of California;
Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas; and
Rep. Terri A. Sewell of Alabama.