If the Rev. Hernan Afanador provides parishioners transportation to church or even offers ailing church members a ride to the doctor, he could be breaking Alabama law.
Transporting an undocumented person is a crime under the state's tough new immigration law, scheduled to go into effect Sept. 1. Fallout from House Bill 56 has already impacted Afandor's ministry as vicar of Iglesia de la Gracia, Birmingham, and as Hispanic missioner in the Diocese of Alabama, he said during a July 18 telephone interview.
Average Sunday attendance at La Gracia was about 100 before Republican Governor Robert Bentley signed the bill into law June 9. In little more than a month, it has dropped by three-fourths, to about 25 and affected everyone, not just the undocumented, he said.
"People are already scared to be in public or to be together in places like church or the supermarket. Already, there is a lot of fear, and a lot of people have left the state, because this law is so aggressive," he added.
Like Arizona's controversial and polarizing SB1070, the Alabama measure aims to identify, prosecute and deport undocumented persons. It empowers law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of people they lawfully stop and whom they suspect are in the country illegally and mandates that prospective employers use E-verify, the U.S. government's electronic verification system for employers to avoid hiring undocumented workers.
But the Alabama law goes further. It is unique in requiring schools to determine, either through a review of birth certificates or sworn affidavit, the legal residency status of students.
Opponents of both laws have called them invitations to harass citizens. On May 26 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in a 5-3 vote an earlier Arizona law that allowed the state the right to deny a business license to employers who repeatedly hire undocumented workers. The ruling set the stage for a high court showdown possibly later this year over SB1070, whose most controversial parts have been blocked in lower courts.
"It (House Bill 56) is a heinous law in my opinion and a very poor attempt to address our dysfunctional immigration policies as a nation," said Bishop Henry N. Parsley Jr., of Alabama in a July 18 telephone interview from his Birmingham office.
It also interferes with the church's mission and the Gospel mandate to love our neighbor, he said. With at least four predominantly Hispanic congregations, the diocese offers a variety of services to those who may be undocumented, according to Parsley.
"We have a ministry where Hispanics are picked up and brought to church, and … a preschool where Hispanic people attend, and that could mean harboring or giving service to people who may be undocumented. We have not looked at anybody's papers. That's not our job as the church," he said.
"We don't encourage undocumented people to come into the country but they're here among us and we minister to them and with them," he added. "That's the church's work and the law potentially interferes with that work."
The diocese and other faith groups sponsored a protest march against the measure a few weeks ago, attended by several thousand people, according to the bishop. "It was a demonstration of our belief that the law is inappropriate and a great witness to a climate which wants to love our neighbors as ourselves and welcome the stranger in our midst as we try to work for both faithful hospitality and more functional immigration laws," Parsley said.
A coalition of faith and civil rights organizations is actively working to prevent the measure from taking effect, he added.
"One of the purposes of the law is to create a climate of fear, to make people afraid. I don't mean just undocumented persons, but any person who's Spanish speaking, for fear they may be profiled and that it may be dangerous for them to go out in public and be required to present papers."
Parsley said he believes the law is also unconstitutional.
"For us, this law does not respect the freedom of religion, to minister to our neighbors and the stranger in our midst, as the Bible is clear we must do. Sadly, it creates a climate of fear, which is never helpful in building the beloved community," he said.
The Rev. David Kendrick of Christ Episcopal Church in Albertville, in the Alabama diocese, agreed in a June 23 blog that the law could prevent Christians from showing love to others, but he believes "it is reasonable for Americans to want to see their laws enforced, and their borders made secure.
"My personal opinion is that such enforcement should be coupled with a path to legalization for those immigrants who come forward, pay a penalty, and can prove that they are not a threat to society," he wrote. "The new law in Alabama is all stick and no carrot."
The Southern Law Poverty Center and the American Civil Liberties Union have also called the measure unconstitutional, in a lawsuit filed June 8 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama.
Among other things, the group's lawsuit charges that the law's provisions requiring schools to check the legal residency status of students will violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Other provisions that deny access to the state's judicial system based on immigration status also would deprive individuals of due process guaranteed by the Constitution, the groups said.
In addition to Arizona and Alabama, four states (Georgia, South Carolina, Utah and Indiana) have also enacted immigration restrictions, even though the U.S. government considers it a federal issue. Federal judges have blocked portions of the laws in some of those states.
About four percent of Alabama's population is Hispanic, according to census figures. The number of Hispanics living in the state grew about 145 percent in the last decade to about 185,600, statistics show.