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Interview with Birmingham City Council President Roderick Royal on HB 56

October 25, 2011

“I’m not the only person in Birmingham, or in Alabama for that matter, who feels that this is not the right thing to do.”

Roderick Royal, president of the Birmingham City Council, spoke with AS/COA’s Ryan Berger about the impact of Alabama’s immigration law, HB 56, on municipalities across the state. The interview took place less than two weeks after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued a split decision on the law. The Court blocked provisions requiring public schools to verify students’ immigration status and allowing the state to charge anyone who cannot provide identification with a criminal offense. Still, under HB 56, police can inquire into immigration status when making a stop or arrest if there is "reasonable suspicion" that the person may be undocumented.

Royal was a panelist at the October 20 program “The Economic Effects of Local Immigration Policy,” which launched a new Americas Society white paper The Economic Impact of Immigrant-Related Local Ordinances.

AS/COA: After passing the state legislature, Governor Robert Bentley signed HB 56 into law in June 2011; the Birmingham City Council, however, is strongly opposed to it. Why are you personally against the legislation?

Roderick Royal: I think the bill is anti-American, really. And that’s more than just talk. The United States was founded on the belief that people could have the opportunity to succeed at the personal and professional levels. That’s a long way to just say that people ought to have a right to earn a living and to live where they choose.

This bill is anti-American in many ways. One, it denies due process. With this bill, of course, if you’re not a citizen, you can’t enter into contracts. This means that if you wanted to rent an apartment or to have someone hold a mortgage for you, this would be illegal in Alabama. Two, up until the appeals court spoke, you could not even seek employment in Alabama for something as simple as a day laborer job cutting somebody’s lawn. That’s anti-American, anti-free enterprise, and it’s downright wrong.

I was asked once before: what’s in it for me? The catch is that it’s always good to do right. In fact, Birmingham has a very small Hispanic population. I would be just fine politically if I said nothing. But that’s not the right thing to do. The right thing to do is to do what’s right—and that is to provide an equal opportunity to everyone who comes to the State of Alabama and the City of Birmingham.

AS/COA: What are the economic effects that you have seen so far in the infancy of the implementation—and what do you foresee happening in the near future?

Royal: Immediately, we may have to hire additional magistrates. Because the law does call for a certain period that if you stop someone on a normal traffic stop, you have to get him or her before a magistrate. The city, being the largest city in Alabama, has the only magistrates that are working around the clock. If other jurisdictions need that service, then closer jurisdictions will need to bring those in question to Birmingham. This means an additional cost to the city. Not to mention, housing people is an additional cost; there are a lot of hidden costs in this bill. For the E-Verify program—although the [U.S. Department of Homeland Security] says it is free—you still have to pay.

But I don’t like to talk about it in terms of money. I like to talk about it in terms of people. This law is just not the right thing to do. And I’m not the only person in Birmingham or in Alabama for that matter who feels that this is not the right thing to do. I have been one of the ones who have just come out to say it. There have been many others, but I have certainly been a little bit more vocal because I want to be known years from now as just doing the right thing.

AS/COA: How is HB56 affecting business in the Birmingham metro area and beyond?

Royal: Actually, there are at least one or two trailer parks that have been emptied as a result of this bill as recently as two weeks ago. Now, because the federal government bases its education allocation money on the number of students present, you have an issue there. It will mean less money, less school supplies, and fewer programs for students. So there are some unintended consequences.

Alabama is also experiencing right now an issue in the agricultural and construction industries. I never would have thought that the ALAGC [Alabama Associated General Contractors] would be supporting people’s rights to work for them at whatever wage they’re paying. But they are on board; they’re saying that this is a problem in the construction industry, which means it’s a problem in getting projects completed on time. Many of these workers are not just vegetable and fruit pickers; quite a number of them are skilled workers. They are bricklayers and roofers and the like. Obviously you can’t go forward with different construction projects when you have a shortage of skilled workers.

The other thing I want to say is that the immigration debate is not about Latinos. It’s actually about African immigrants and other immigrants as well. I think we would do well to include that in our message—and that will help us to coalesce in a way that’s probably beneficial to the entire movement of getting rid of bills such as HB 56.

And we ought to expose people who are just a little less than blatant racists. This is about more than just jobs; I think this boils down to something else, too, which is not surprising in many parts of Alabama. Things have changed but haven’t changed.

AS/COA: In issuing a resolution in June condemning HB 56, the Birmingham City Council recommended the formation of a commission that would study a more “humane solution.” Has the commission moved forward?

Royal: Governor Robert Bentley, through his chief of staff, rejected our proposal for a commission that would study immigration policy and probably make recommendations or revisions to [HB 56]. That was disappointing to me personally because you really can’t govern unless you are willing to make adjustments to your policy. If you ask me, being a politician, you have to be flexible and can’t take a static position.

AS/COA: What type of immigration policies can help cities prosper?

Royal: I think the first thing that we can do is view people as people. And it goes back to the saying that you should treat people how you wish to be treated, and not how they treat you. In a state like Alabama, where less than 187,000 people may fall into the category of undocumented immigrants—and you have almost 5 million people in the state—it’s ridiculous to even implement this kind of law.

What you really should be doing is trying to formulate a plan to integrate people into society. Believe me, there is no mad rush to come to Alabama based on the numbers—although the numbers have increased. And certainly there won’t be a mad rush in the near future.