ALBERTVILLE, Ala. - Community leaders and Hispanic activists from the Southeast and Arizona began a three-day meeting Thursday in Alabama to help organize that state's immigrant community and begin a push to overturn its tough, new illegal immigration law.
About 30 advocates, most from the Southeast, will work with more than 35 activists and leaders from around Alabama during sessions that focus on coping with provisions of the new law and calming fears over its toughest sections. Leaders hope to form local groups that will serve as support organizations for immigrants statewide, bringing them together and keeping them informed about the law and any changes to it.
But opponents of the law said they are not stopping there.
"A big part of it is to launch a campaign of repeal," said Victor Spezzini, the lead community organizer with the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama.
A Democratic legislator already has said he will introduce a bill to repeal the law passed by the Republican-controlled legislature, which is being challenged in federal court by the Obama administration, private groups and individuals. Republican backers say they will fight any attempt to gut the law when lawmakers return to session next year.
Described by both supporters and critics as the nation's toughest state measure against illegal immigration, the law allows police to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally and bars government agencies from conducting business with illegal immigrants. Courts have blocked some sections, including a requirement that public schools verify the citizenship of students.
Supporters contend the crackdown is needed to free up jobs for legal residents and reduce state spending on services to illegal immigrants, but opponents describe it as mean-spirited and racist.
Quietly, activists from national Hispanic groups and immigrant advocacy organizations began converging on Alabama in mid-October after a federal judge allowed parts of the law to take effect.
They helped local workers lead community meetings in churches and a few schools in cities from the Tennessee Valley to the coast.
Carlos Garcia, a community organizer from Arizona who is attending the meeting in northeast Alabama, said even more activists are likely on the way. Laws such as those passed in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia and other states are sweeping across the nation and can't go unchallenged, he said.
"Unless we fight, tell the stories and identify how to fight it, it's going to continue to spread," said Garcia.
Dennis Soriano, who works with the Congress of Day Laborers in New Orleans, said immigrants living in Louisiana fear lawmakers there could pass a law like Alabama's. Organizing people across state lines in the South will help immigrants in Alabama and elsewhere know they are not alone, he said.
"If we think more as a region we will feel less abandoned," he said.
Leaders said community leaders from Birmingham, Mobile, Montgomery, Dothan, Foley, Russellville and DeKalb County are expected for the meeting, which will include a mass meeting at a church and door-to-door canvassing in Albertville to inform people about the law. The gathering was put together by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the Southeastern Immigrant Rights Network in cooperation with the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice.