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Immigration and Civil Rights

We Belong Together in Alabama

By Mary Beth Coudal

Ruth Ann Powers, educator and leader in United Methodist Women, was among the 17 U.S. leaders at the We Belong Together roundtable in March who denounced HB 56, Alabama’s 2011 anti-immigrant legislation.

Ms. Powers called HB 56 “draconian” and “racist” for causing immigrant families to live in fear, forcing them to leave their homes and supportive communities, such as their churches and schools.

The We Belong Together delegation heard stories from women and girls at ¡HICA! (The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama) who described the impact of the law. One woman was harassed by a police officer, another told of being denied medical care for her child, another was unable to find employment, and many talked of painful family separations.

Jocelyn’s Story

Of particular poignancy for the United Methodist Women, member Jo Anne Minnitt of North Alabama and mission coordinator for social action was meeting 14-year-old Jocelyn, who told of the pain of separating from her parents as they were forced to leave Alabama for Mexico. The eighth grader now lives with her uncle and misses her mother tremendously, especially when she does well in school and reports on her good schoolwork.

Ms. Minnitt shared Jocelyn’s story at Refresh and Retreat, a United Methodist Women spiritual enrichment event. “We tried to impact the hearts of women on how it [HB 56] is impacting the children. If anything affects a child, women are touched. We may not be able to change opinions, but we are able to change their hearts. And we left the women with the thought, ‘What would Jesus have done? Wouldn’t he have tried to keep the families together?’”

“Most families are mixed status. One member is documented; one is not,” reported Danny Upton who spoke at the Refresh and Retreat event. Mr. Upton is national program attorney for Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON) program in Huntsville, Ala. “But if you have a family where everyone is documented except Mom, everyone will leave. So we’re not just losing undocumented citizens.”

Ms. Minnitt remembers, in particular, one of her star students of 30 years of teaching, noting that with this legislation her pupil would have been afraid and unable to continue his schooling. “My heart breaks for the children,” Ms. Minnitt said.

The Response From Faith Communities

“People have left our local United Methodist congregations. They are just gone. This is disheartening, and lots of us would like to keep our neighbors—who pay their taxes, who work hard. … Some people say, ‘That’s all right, that’s what it [HB 56] was intended to do—drive them (immigrants) out of the state.’”

The legislation has “galvanized the people in the pews. A lot of United Methodist Women members are fired up about this. They care about their neighbors and injustice. They want to see Alabama on the right side of history,” said Mr. Upton, who went on to describe how people of faith and United Methodist Women are joining in demonstrations, educating voters, questioning the state’s authority legally, and working toward the legislation’s repeal.

“Bolstered in my dedication,” Ms. Powers said, “We will actively fight for the repeal of HB 56.” Ms. Powers is member of a United Methodist Women from Phenix City, Ala., and was been a director of the General Board of Global Ministries and the Women’s Division.

Of primary concern to Ms. Powers, an English as a second language teacher, was the withdrawal of support for college education for young women like Jocelyn. “The DREAM Act is the only sensible thing to do,” said Ms. Powers, who referred to proposed national legislation that would allow young people who had entered the United States as minors to continue with their schooling to college graduation and after years qualify for permanent residence.

Ms. Powers said that Jocelyn was determined to attend college, but Ms. Powers doubted her ability to graduate from college unless the DREAM Act was enacted. Ms. Powers worried for Jocelyn’s future.

The We Belong Together Statement

As the We Belong Together roundtable ended, the coalition of national delegates—teachers, nonprofit leaders, policymakers, lawyers, and community organizers—wrote a statement.

“The reality is that for these women, the decision to leave or to stay here in their homes is an impossible weighing of unthinkable risk,” the statement says.

Indeed, the statement says, “We call upon everyone who values human rights and social justice to join our courageous sisters in Alabama who are fighting for the right to live with dignity, humanity, and justice.” 

Those joining in that fight are Mr. Upton, Ms. Minnitt and Powers. Also in the national delegation was Monica Hernandez of Southeast Immigrant Rights Network whom many United Methodist Women may recall as the lead organizer of the immigration advocacy event at National Seminar, a large United Methodist Women’s learning and advocacy event that was held in Birmingham almost a year ago.

To learn more about how you can get involved in immigration ministries through United Methodist Women, contact Carol Barton at CBarton@unitedmethodistwomen.org.

To read a recent statement from United Methodist Alabama Bishop Will Willimon on the impact of HB 56 on Hispanic church communities, visit the immigration community on UMWOnline.

To read more news and read about We Belong Together, connect to: webelongtogether.org/news.

To read the statement from the roundtable, see: webelongtogether.org/news/we-belong-together-womens-human-rights-delegation-statement.

Last Updated: 04/09/2014

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