As we charge toward 2012, many conservative politicians and talking heads have chosen undocumented immigrants as a handy scapegoat for society's ills. Sadly, too many U.S. citizens have supported that move, and a swelling wave of state policies aim to shove undocumented workers out of U.S. borders. Such laws could have serious implications not only for that population but also for the social service organizations that seek to aid them.
In April 2010, Arizona set off a domino effect of anti-immigrant state legislation, followed in turn by Georgia, Alabama, Utah and Indiana. AIDS service organizations (ASOs) in these states say these laws—which are now winding their way through the courts and look increasingly likely to reach the Supreme Court—will gravely hurt their work with the undocumented population in particular, as well as with Latinos on the whole. Or in some cases, the ASOs may experience a seam-splitting influx of clients: As state-run social services providers, under pressure by the state government, turn away undocumented immigrants, those clients turn to the ASOs.
In June, Alabama's Republican Governor Robert Bentley, backed by a super-majority of Republican state legislators, signed a sweeping piece of anti-immigration legislation that now ranks as the most stringent in the country. In addition to forbidding undocumented immigrants from working in the state, even as day laborers, the law makes it a crime to transport or enter into a rental contract with an undocumented immigrant. The law is equally strict on those who assist in securing a lease with a third party.
Late this past summer, the Obama administration sought an injunction against the law, effectively stalling the September 1 start date and sending it to a state district judge for review. The administration called the legislation a “scheme,” claiming the U.S. Constitution forbids individual states from setting up an immigration policy that conflicts with federal law. Several other civil rights groups also sued to block the law, as did a collection of religious organizations that said the law would interfere with their ability to carry out good deeds.
On September 28, Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn, of the U.S. District in Birmingham, upheld much of the law, including measures that allow the Alabama police to stop and possibly detain those suspected of being in the country without proper papers. But Judge Blackburn issued a preliminary injunction against both the transportation and rental agreement provisions, as well as the restriction on undocumented immigrants seeking work through an independent contractor. In response, the governor said he expects Blackburn's injunctions to be overturned, allowing those aspects of the legislation ultimately to be upheld.
Nic Carlisle, director of policy and advocacy for AIDS Alabama, an ASO in Birmingham, says he is worried that the full implementation of the law will make it more difficult for his organization to provide housing, transportation and even education services to an already-vulnerable population.
“It's hurting our efforts in the Latino community,” says Kathie M. Hiers, AIDS Alabama's no-nonsense CEO, “because people are afraid. The first thing they ask is, ‘Are you going to ask for papers?' I tell them, ‘Absolutely not!' Because we don't. We have funding sources that don't require that.
“Whatever happened to the slogan on the Statue of Liberty?” she asks, referring to the inscription on the statue's base that famously begins: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses….”
“U.S. global AIDS policy is so public in its support of global AIDS access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support,” says Kim Nichols, co-executive director of the African Services Committee in New York. “But this is such a contradiction when you look at the availability of care here in the United States for HIV-positive immigrants.”
“It really doesn't make sense to address a public health problem by segmenting out different groups of the population,” adds Catalina Sol, chief programs officer at La Clinica del Pueblo in Washington, DC. “We have a National AIDS Strategy, but we're still missing an explicit strategy toward immigrants that would bring the country more in line with what happens around the world, and bring success to a strategy that is based on individuals and populations all adopting the same type of practice.”
Charles King, CEO of New York City's Housing Works, advises, “It's important for people in those states [with new immigration laws] to go to a community-based organization as opposed to going to a state system of care.”
Meanwhile, many in the advocacy community are gearing up for a fight. They believe the undocumented community has the fundamental human rights to basic social services and health care access. Advocates hope to protect those rights, and they encourage the entire HIV community to do the same. Here are some tips on what you can do:
Give: your time and money (or sometimes food, for their pantries) to a local ASO or to an immigrants' rights advocacy organization or labor organization that works on these issues.
To find an ASO, go to directory.poz.com.
You can Google to find immigrant or labor groups, or check out:
Southern Poverty Law Center 334.956.8200
The Latino Commission on AIDS 212.675.3288
The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda 202.842.0235Learn: as much as you can about the issue of undocumented immigrants so you can have informed discussions.
Write: letters or editorials for your local newspaper, responding to articles about immigration and the anti-immigrant legislation. Use these means to educate your community that these laws are not only inhumane but also, as Hiers says, “a big waste of money.”
Call: state or federal representatives and tell them that you want fair immigration reform in the United States.
To find senators and representatives, go to: contactingthecongress.org.