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Did I Sound "Illegal"?

Six years ago, I was co-directing the Women Immigrants Project at New America Media in San Francisco. I called a state legislator in Alabama to interview her about the state's anti-immigrant law -- HB 56. After the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio pushed Arizona's "show me your papers" law, other states began proposing similar measures.

Before I tell you about that phone call with a staff member of the Alabama House of Representatives, let me say a bit more about what was going on in Alabama.

Alabama's Anti-Immigrant Law

HB 56 sought to make the state so inhospitable to undocumented immigrants that they would self deport. It shared the usual characteristics of similar state laws. It had a “show me your papers,” provision and police parked themselves near Latino neighborhoods and stopped people as they drove to or from their homes. If you couldn’t immediately prove your lawful status, off you went to jail and you were held there until ICE decided what it would do with you.

The law prohibited undocumented folks from accessing any government services including registering their cars or applying for a marriage license. It also was unlawful for undocumented immigrants to enter into any contracts: it was against the law for them to rent an apartment, have cell phone service, buy a car, have a bank account. How exactly was this going to be enforced?

Some utility companies thought it required them to cut off water, electricity, and gas for customers with names like Garcia and Rodriguez unless they could prove they were here lawfully. The law threw the state into a tailspin because determining someone's immigration status is complicated, and assumptions based on a person's name or appearance will surely mean violating the constitutional rights of large numbers of Latinos. In fact this was the basis of numerous court rulings around the country, issuing injunctions against these state anti-immigrant laws.

The Alabama law required schools to inquire about the legal status of parents and their children; and fearful parents quit sending their kids to school. The law did not go as far as to deny them admission. It couldn’t, as it is settled US Supreme Court law that all children residing in the US are entitled to a free K-12 public education. I worked on that case, when I was a young lawyer, at MALDEF.

There was an exodus of Latinos, including US citizens and lawful residents -- fleeing the climate of fear thousands left, in spite of federal courts stopping most of the law from going into effect while the lawsuits challenging the law worked their way through the legal system.

The law was very unpopular with the business community. The agricultural lobby was up in arms about the millions of dollars farmers were losing as crops rotted in the fields. The coup de grâce was the arrest of two foreign nationals employed by Honda and Mercedes-Benz. Both companies have manufacturing plants in Alabama, and employees from Japan and Germany either lived there or traveled to Alabama for business reasons on a regular basis. First, a German executive with Mercedes Benz was arrested, and detained with an immigration hold after being pulled over at a checkpoint. A traffic stop led to the arrest of a Honda employee, a Japanese man, who was held in jail for three days, until he could be cleared by ICE. Lots of national and international news coverage back then, here's one story.

The Phone Call

So back to my phone call. According to the person on the other end of the phone, no one answered at the office I was calling, so my call went to the main switchboard of the Alabama House of Representatives. I identified myself as a journalist from San Francisco giving my name its correct Spanish pronunciation.

“That is a foreign name, and I am not talking to you.”

Click. She hung up on me.

I can only conclude that she assumed I was undocumented. I was 2000+ miles from Alabama and that state’s anti-immigrant climate was affecting me.

So when I saw Sergio Romo at the 2012 World Series Victory Parade wearing the “I Just Look Illegal” t-shirt, in protest of all these anti-immigrant laws that were sprouting up throughout the country, I could relate. This Alabama story is one of many in my play that explore how people judge us based on our names or appearance.

Check out this promotional video -- a snippet of my performance from an earlier show. This vignette is no longer in my play, material comes and goes to make room for new stories. My goal is to keep the performance under 65 minutes.

Post Show Talkbacks

Following each of the two Las Cruces shows there will be half-hour Talkbacks with local guests.

After the 2 pm show, Johana Bencomo, Director of Community Organizing at NM CAFé, will join me on stage. NM CAFé is "a faith-based organization that aspires to create a culture of support that empowers New Mexicans to act on their own behalf towards a better quality of life. Since it’s inception CAFé has been a crucial actor in the political landscape in southern New Mexico creating a “land of opportunity” by challenging our elected leaders to put the needs of families and the common good of New Mexico first. At the helm of CAFé’s efforts are strong spiritual leaders who have played a pivitol role in healing the state and restoring people’s confidence in a responsive government that promotes opportunity for all." Click here to visit CAFé’s website.

Johana and I will likely be joined by a representative of the ACLU or from one of the organizations that collaborated with the ACLU’s Border Rights Center on a report released this past week. The facts presented in the ACLU’s Border Wall Report “reveal the increased danger, environmental impact, and economic toll suffered by local economies because of these barriers. The report also evaluates and analyzes the ineffectiveness of border walls to avert unauthorized crossings, prevent criminal activity such as drug smuggling and human trafficking, and safeguard our national security.” Read full report here.

Following the 7 pm show, my guest will be Dr. Christine Marie Sierra, Professor Emerita of Political Science at the University of New Mexico. Her expertise is in American politics with a focus on race, ethnicity, and gender. Her most recent publication is a co-authored national study of elected officials of color -- Contested Transformation: Race, Gender, and Political Leadership in Twenty-First Century America. Click here for more info on the book.

Dr. Sierra, a pioneer in her field, was the third Mexican American woman to receive a Ph.D. in political science. She has written extensively on Mexican American activism, on immigration policy, Hispanic politics in New Mexico, and the politics of Latinas in the United States. She is a frequent commentator on news programs and is the recipient of numerous honors. I look forward to a very spirited conversation with Dr. Sierra about the upcoming elections and the many important issues affecting the Latino community.

Thank you for helping to spread the word about the October 7 performances in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Tickets $12-15, available here.

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