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13 arrested in protest against Alabama's immigration law

Two activists are arrested for refusing to leave a state office building and 11 for blocking a street in Montgomery, in actions reminiscent of the city's civil rights-era confrontations.

November 16, 2011|By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times
  • A crowd at a Birmingham elementary school listens to a discussion last month about Alabama's strict new illegal immigration law.
A crowd at a Birmingham elementary school listens to a discussion last month… (Tamika Moore, Birmingham…)

Reporting from Montgomery, Ala. — One of the most dramatic protests against Alabama's tough illegal immigration law unfolded here Tuesday as 13 activists, most of them from out of state, were arrested for blocking a street near the Capitol and refusing to leave a legislative office building as a crowd chanted, "Undocumented, unafraid!"

The acts of civil disobedience were the culmination of a rally organized by the Dream is Coming project, a group of young illegal immigrants calling for passage of the DREAM Act, the proposed federal legislation that would create a path to citizenship for qualifying illegal immigrants who attend college or enroll in the military.

But the organizers were also targeting the Alabama law, which is considered the nation's strictest, and which has drawn activists into the state to organize and protest to a degree rarely seen here since the civil rights turmoil of the 1960s.

In recent weeks, organizers have been teaching illegal immigrants around the state how to form "neighborhood defense committees" to inform and support one another about the way the law is being applied. On Wednesday, the AFL-CIO plans to send a group of African American labor leaders to Birmingham to observe the law's effects. On Monday, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) is among those scheduled to appear at a rally at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church, where a bombing in 1963 killed four young black girls and helped fuel the civil rights movement.

As it has in other states, the Dream is Coming group hoped to show other illegal immigrants that they would be safer if they came out of the shadows and declared their undocumented status. The Obama administration's policy is to avoid deporting noncriminals; as an apparent result, group activists who were arrested in Atlanta this year were released by immigration authorities, even after publicly declaring their immigration status.

Sam Brooke, staff attorney with Montgomery's Southern Poverty Law Center, said the strategy carried "a real risk" in Alabama, where the new law requires that police report to federal authorities anyone they detain if they have a "reasonable suspicion" the person may be in the country illegally. Coming out at a public rally, he said, might "make it easier to identify you when you go home."

About 100 activists, including college-age students and a few families pushing strollers, circled the state Capitol in the afternoon, chanting slogans and waving signs, but they found a small audience in Alabama's sleepy capital city. By day's end, police had arrested two protesters for refusing to leave a state office building and 11 more who sat in the rain in the middle of South Union Street, across from the former residence of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

The police were firm but careful as they cuffed protesters with plastic bands and led them without incident to a school bus. Philip Bryan, the chief of staff for Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, said authorities were striving to avoid a public relations debacle.

"What you don't want is that front-page of Time [magazine] picture where they're being drug by the neck," Bryan said, perhaps alluding to incendiary images from the civil rights era.

Watching from the street were two illegal immigrants who gave their names only as Juan, 35, and Carlos, 27. The Montgomery residents said they weren't ready to announce themselves to the world given their fears about the law.

Carlos said that publicly declaring one's immigration status was thus far a rare response to the law.

Instead, he said of other illegal immigrants, "they've been leaving."

richard.fausset@latimes.com

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