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3:51 pm
Mon October 24, 2011

Families Broken Up As Immigrants Flee Alabama

Some immigrant families say Alabama's tough new immigration law is forcing them to split up, at least temporarily.

Every fall, migrant workers follow the tomato harvest south from Alabama to the Redlands Christian Migrant Association campus in Mulberry, Fla. It's an oasis of shady oak trees amid acres and acres of tomato fields.

But this year, women and children are showing up several weeks ahead of their husbands, who have stayed behind in Alabama to finish the tomato harvest. Other families who aren't migrant workers are showing up for the first time.

The women say they're coming to Florida because they're afraid that if they stayed in Alabama, someone in their family could be deported. Many of them come from "mixed" families, where some are U.S. citizens and some are not.

But there's little work at this time of year in Florida, so the men are staying behind and taking their chances. It's creating hardships for the women who cannot work, and a migrant center that doesn't have enough money to serve them.

'We Don't Know Mexico'

On a recent weekday at the campus, Emilia stops by the Head Start center and day care. She plans to register her younger daughter there, like she did last year.

But this year, she's arrived six weeks early, and for the first time in 10 years of marriage, she and her kids are alone.

She says her kids were very upset when she told them they'd be leaving their father, who is still in Alabama harvesting tomatoes. [NPR has withheld their last name because the family fears deportation.]

"They started to cry, because they did not want to leave," she says in Spanish.

They divided the family temporarily to avoid being split up permanently. Emilia, her husband and oldest daughter are Mexican nationals. Her younger daughter and son are U.S. citizens.

"They're pretty scared," she said. "My son, he tells me, 'I don't want you to go to Mexico. What are we going to do in Mexico? We don't know Mexico.' "

There's no statewide count of how many people from Alabama are fleeing to Florida. There are isolated reports — construction workers with Alabama plates in Orlando, children from Alabama showing up at schools. In this tiny community, there are 15 families who are split like Emilia's.

Usually, Emilia works alongside her husband in the fields. Because she's too early for the Florida harvest, she's surviving on half their usual income. Even if there were work, she has no one to watch her 4-year-old daughter.

Fear In Their Eyes

In the preschool rooms at the center, everything is still wrapped in plastic. The organization can't open early. It barely has enough money for the traditional harvest season.

Migrant worker advocate Lourdes Villanueva says there's another issue this year. She's not just seeing migrant workers this time; other families are coming down from Alabama who've never worked in the fields. Because of restrictions on her grant funding, there's little she can do for those families.

"That is the hardest thing. You know the situation that they're in and you feel like ... you feel like you have your hands tied," Villanueva says.

She says that in a way, the Alabama law is just an escalation. Routine traffic stops now lead to deportations. Florida law makes it a crime to drive without a license — and illegal immigrants can't get one.

Last year, five of the children at the center saw one of their parents deported. Kids as young as 3 talk about it.

"We see the fear in those kids' eyes every day," Villaneuva says. "They don't know if they're parents are going to come back to pick them up or not.

"Same thing with the mothers in the mornings when they hand them over to you — they don't know if they're going to get to see their kid or not in the afternoon," she said.

Not A Victimless Crime

But to Jack Oliver, that's exactly what Emilia and her husband are: people who have broken the law.

"Folks try and say that, and we understand everybody's plight that comes from these other countries, and we're sympathetic toward that," says Oliver, legislative director for the group Floridians for Immigration Enforcement. "But it's not a victimless crime."

Oliver works at a South Florida hospital, but he used to be a construction worker. He says illegal labor has depressed wages and made it harder for people like him to find work.

"I've worked in construction since 1968. Every place where illegal aliens were introduced by these companies that are operating outside the law, I saw my wages and my income drop," he says.

Oliver wants Florida to pass its own version of Alabama's law, which continues to have the full support of Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley.

Several surrounding states now require employers to use the "e-verify" system to check their employees' status, and Oliver is upset that Florida doesn't.

"We've in effect become a magnet for all the illegal aliens," he says. "We're the closest in proximity, and our state Legislature, because of their failure to act to protect the citizens, has made us in effect a sanctuary state."

A Change Of Heart

Earlier this year, the Florida Legislature debated and narrowly rejected its own tougher immigration law.

The bill died in part because a powerful lawmaker and citrus grower, state Sen. J.D. Alexander, had a change of heart.

Alexander represents Polk County, where Mulberry is located. In a floor speech, he described meeting with hundreds of farm workers protesting at the Capitol.

"It's easy to talk about — you know, down at the post office, at the bar — you know, we ought to do this thing," he says. "But when you start looking in people's eyes and understand they are people who live and breathe just like us — I think you all need to think about it very carefully."

Both sides of the immigration debate agree on one thing: that Congress has failed to do its job, leaving it up to each state to work out its own imperfect solution and further straining state budgets in a difficult economy.

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