“I only travel during the middle of the day, because the roadblocks in Alabama are worse early in the morning and at night,” says Enriquez, 24, originally from Veracruz, Mexico. “And I take a route that helps me avoid the retenes – the roadblocks.”
With his finger he draws a zigzagging line in the air.
Enriquez is one of an unknown number of undocumented workers who have taken the narrow roads through cotton fields along the border and crossed from Alabama into small towns in the Florida Panhandle to escape the toughest state immigration crackdown in the union.
“We’re seeing quite a few people coming,” says Rachel Hernandez, a social worker who helps place migrant children in schools on the Florida side of the border. “These people are scared of what’s happening in Alabama.”
People like Enriquez are caught in the middle of the conflict surrounding the immigration issue. On the one side are business owners who want cheap, hardworking labor. On the other are Americans who don’t want people in the country illegally and who increasingly fear that undocumented workers are taking jobs away from U.S. citizens in the midst of an unemployment crisis.
Pressure on employers
The Alabama legislation allows law enforcement personnel to ask people they stop for proof of citizenship and provides that violators be jailed – and possibly deported. It also prohibits renting to or hiring the undocumented – businesses could lose their licenses – and would allow discrimination lawsuits against employers who fire a legal worker while still employing an undocumented worker.
The law also required schools to determine the legal status of all students and their parents, but that provision was struck down by the federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Before that provision was blocked, many undocumented parents pulled their children out of school, but the great majority eventually returned.
The law was backed by Republican Gov. Robert Bentley and passed in June by both houses of the Alabama Legislature, which for the first time since 1874 are controlled by the GOP. Alabama was home to an estimated 185,000 undocumented people. Around the time the provisions took effect, some fled to Florida and elsewhere.
Enriquez, who lived in Samson, Ala., about 10 miles north of the border, is married to a U.S. citizen. But, he says, because he was deported in 2007 and returned, he cannot apply for U.S. citizenship until a penalty period has elapsed.
“The moment the law went into effect, my wife, Megan, said to me, ‘We have to get out of here,’ ” Enriquez says. “Many people started to get out that day.”
He left and very quickly found a job at a lumber company on the Florida side of the border, but he had to take a sharp pay cut.
“In Alabama I worked for a recycling company, driving a forklift and a loader,” he says. “I was making $14 per hour and $21 for overtime. My bosses said to me, ‘Don’t worry, that law never will pass.’ But it did.”
“Here I’m making about half that – minimum wage,” he said of Graceville, a weathered, one-stoplight town of about 2,500 residents, 2 miles south of the Alabama line. “But I’m staying here with friends, still paying for my house back there and saving up money to bring my wife and daughter.”
Fear of deportation
Francisco, 34, who asked that his family name not be used, is also from Mexico, but has lived in the U.S. for 11 years. As soon as the law went into effect, he left Webb, Ala., where he worked for the past four years as a welder for a steel company, making $11 per hour. Francisco, his wife, Dolores, 33, and their daughter, Kimberley, 8, now share a ramshackle, two-bedroom trailer with another Mexican family, on a backstreet in Marianna. They also talked about the dreaded roadblocks everywhere in Alabama.
“We had to get out before they sent us back to Mexico,” says Dolores. She says she and her husband come from the same small town near Veracruz, Mexico, and that there is no way to make a living there.
They were doing well in Alabama, but have had trouble finding work in Florida. Lately, Francisco has worked some hours in cotton and watermelon fields. On the unfinished plywood floor of the trailer sit several watermelons he has brought home from work.
“At one point my husband tried to get his old job back with the steel company up in Webb, but they told him they could only hire him back if he had (legal) papers,” Dolores says. “Everything has changed there.”
Dianel (pronounced DEE-a-nel), 30, is another refugee from Alabama living in Marianna, a town of antebellum homes and the site of a small Civil War battle that probably doesn’t mean much to its new Mexican residents.
She and her four children – ages 5 to 11 – were living in Gordon, Ala., where Dianel worked collecting and packing pine needle mulch for landscapers. She had to drive to get to work and to take the children to school and was afraid of being arrested at checkpoints. She took her children out of school in Alabama at first.