NBC: New Alabama Law Treats Illegal Immigrants 'Like Blacks of the Jim Crow Era'
Updated [13:06 ET]: More analysis and full transcript added.
On Monday's Rock Center on NBC, correspondent Kate Snow savaged Alabama's new immigration law, touting left-wing historian Wayne Flynt comparing it to the racism of the 1960s: "This is just mean-spirited. This is – this is finding the most vulnerable people within a society....it's like the blacks in 1963 who could not vote in Alabama." [Audio available here]
Snow followed by citing the plight of one illegal immigrant family operating a bakery in the state: "The Sanchezs agree. They feel like Alabama blacks of the Jim Crow era." Snow then turned to Republican Governor Robert Bentley and leveled a harsh accusation: "The woman who owns this bakery, she said the men who did this are racists. She was talking about you, sir."
As Snow made the "Jim Crow era" comparison, footage appeared on screen of blacks being sprayed with fire hoses and threatened with attack dogs during civil rights marches in the '60s. [View video after the jump]
Anchor Brian Williams introduced Snow's hit piece by declaring: "Tensions have reached a boiling point in the state of Alabama, which recently enacted the nation's toughest immigration crackdown, one that has sparked a big and ugly fight."
Talking about the Sanchez family – not using their real name – Snow explained: "They say they're responsible, church-going, tax-paying members of their community. And Maria Sanchez says she believes the charge of criminality isn't the real motivation for the crackdown." Snow wondered: "Why do you think this law passed?" Maria Sanchez ranted: "Because of racism, it's as simple as that....You have to look at the smiles on those people's faces when the Governor signed that law. Just look at that sinister smile. That's why I say it."
As the show went to a commercial break, Williams teased: "And when we continue, Alabama's governor answers that charge of racism, and the fierce criticism from farmers who thought he was on their side."
Following the commercial, before returning to Snow's report, Williams informed viewers: "The Obama administration is suing Alabama, along with Arizona and South Carolina, claiming the states have overstepped their authority to regulate immigration, traditionally considered a federal matter. But Alabama has a tougher fight, much closer to home..."
After demanding Governor Bentley respond to accusations of him being racist, Snow followed up: "Can you understand, sir, how this looks to people outside of Alabama? People think about Alabama and they think about the past, unfortunately." Bentley replied: "In the '50s and '60s, the federal government was trying to get Alabama to obey the Constitution. They were right and we were wrong in the South....Today what we're trying to do is we're trying to get the federal government to obey the law."
As proof of the supposedly racist nature of the new immigration law, Snow provided this anecdote:
The day after the immigration law took effect, the Sanchezs' daughter tried to carry on as she normally would, boarding the bus for school. From the bus, she sent us a text message saying that the driver had snapped "You're Mexicans, you're going to have to leave." Maria and Jose Sanchez were trying to get over the shock, as we walked through their neighborhood, already abandoned by many residents.
After Snow concluded her report, Williams remarked to her in studio: "We said at the top of the evening, this was getting ugly and it is." He later added that the story was a "powerful piece of work."
Here is a full transcript of the November 14 segment:
WILLIAMS: If you scratch the surface, most Americans admit to mixed feelings about illegal immigration. People who take a hard line against undocumented workers in this country are often unable to say exactly where our produce would come from without them. On the other hand, folks who are sympathetic to the plight of undocumented workers often ignore the strain they put on public services. These tensions have reached a boiling point in the state of Alabama, which recently enacted the nation's toughest immigration crackdown, one that has sparked a big and ugly fight. Kate Snow tonight reports on the state where if you're undocumented, help is not wanted.
KATE SNOW: It's a bitter harvest this fall on Chandler Mountain in Alabama's northern hill country. Farmer Ellen Jenkins couldn't find enough help to pick her tomatoes and now they're rotting on the vine. The Mexican workers who used to be here are gone. Ever since her husband passed away two years ago, she had counted on those workers. She says they helped her save her farm.
ELLEN JENKINS: They practically become your family when they start working with you. You can ask them to do anything in the world and they'll come to you. A lot of times you don't have to ask them. They see you doing something, they'll come and help you.
SNOW: And they did. Until that day in late September when Alabama's new immigration law, the toughest in the nation, went into effect. The law covers a lot of ground. Among other things, it prohibits employers from hiring undocumented workers, has police demand proof of legal residency when they pull someone over, and orders schools to gather citizenship information from new students. That last part was temporarily blocked by a court. It all proved too much for Jenkins' Mexican workers.
JENKINS: They just said, 'Well, we're going to have to leave.' And I said what have you got to leave for? 'Well, we don't want no problems.' The women were literally crying because they didn't know what was going to happen to their families.
SNOW: It's the same for undocumented families across Alabama. Like Jose Sanchez's family. He and his wife, Maria, say they risked everything to get here to open their own bakery. They asked us not to use their real names and hide Maria's face. They say eight years ago they were desperate to leave the violence of Mexico's Ciudad Juarez and that they tried and failed to get U.S. visas, so they decided to cross through the desert with their two children. Do you remember this journey? You were six years old.
MS. SANCHEZ [DAUGHTER]: Yeah, I remember.
SNOW: How hard was that?
MS. SANCHEZ: It was really hard because it was walking through the desert, not knowing if you're going to survive, if you're going to get sent back, if you're going to die like many people did, because while you were walking through the desert, you would see dead bodies. You would see poisonous animals.
SNOW: Do you think about it anymore?
MS. SANCHEZ: There's times where I have nightmares.
SNOW: Why would you take so much risk to come to this country?
MR. SANCHEZ [FATHER]: To have a better situation for my family, be able to live more freely, not go hungry, and to give them the opportunity to go to school. That's why we risked our lives, so they could live better lives than we did as children.
SNOW: In Alabama, the Sanchezs both worked full time and at night they baked bread and delivered it door to door.
MR. SANCHEZ: Sometimes we'd knock on 150, 200 doors.
SNOW: 200 Doors?
MR. SANCHEZ: Bringing bread. And that's how we became a very popular family.
SNOW: So popular that two years ago, they were able to open the bakery. The Sanchezs acknowledge that they broke the law when they entered the country, but now they say they'd do anything, pay any penalty, to become legal residents. But there's no way to do so, and things just got tougher.
SNOW: When you first heard about this new Alabama law, what did you think?
MR. SANCHEZ: That the sky was crashing down on us. Not just for me, but for everybody here, because these are people who came to work, really work. There might be some people who came with other intentions, but we're just here to work and offer our kids a better life.
SNOW: That better life may be ending. Because of the new law, they won't be able to renew their business license and will have to give up their bakery. That's all fine with Clarissa Winchester, whose father immigrated legally from Mexico, but whose opposition to illegal immigration is deeply personal.
CLARISSA WINCHESTER: Illegal immigration had cost our family member her life. That was at the point that I became angry enough to act on it.
SNOW: Winchester has been lobbying Alabama politicians for a crackdown since 2005, when her sister-in-law was killed by a drunk driver who was an undocumented immigrant. You started advocating?
WINCHESTER: Yes, Ma'am.
SNOW: What's the link between this one man who did this horrible thing to your sister-in-law and this entire pool of people that are here illegally?
WINCHESTER: Definitely for me the connection is the word "illegal." Many times people try to tell me, 'Well, you don't know so and so. This is my friend or this is my employer.' But it's really hard for me to hear anything else that they have to say when the first sentence out of your mouth was let me tell you about this great person that's a criminal.
SNOW: Not surprisingly, that's a description the Sanchezs reject. They say they're responsible, church-going, tax-paying members of their community. And Maria Sanchez says she believes the charge of criminality isn't the real motivation for the crackdown. Why do you think this law passed?
MRS. SANCHEZ [MOTHER]: Because of racism, it's as simple as that.
SNOW: So you think people here just don't like having Latinos around.
MRS. SANCHEZ: No.
SNOW: How do you know?
MRS. SANCHEZ: You have to look at the smiles on those people's faces when the Governor signed that law. Just look at that sinister smile. That's why I say it.
WILLIAMS: We're going to take a break in our story right here. And when we continue, Alabama's governor answers that charge of racism, and the fierce criticism from farmers who thought he was on their side. That's when Rock Center continues.
WILLIAMS: Welcome back to Rock Center. Alabama is now the epicenter of this national argument over illegal immigration thanks to the state's new law that is the toughest in the nation. The Obama administration is suing Alabama, along with Arizona and South Carolina, claiming the states have overstepped their authority to regulate immigration, traditionally considered a federal matter. But Alabama has a tougher fight, much closer to home, and now Kate Snow continues her reporting.
SNOW: Since Alabama's strict new immigration law took effect, some farm workers have pitched in for one last harvest. Others are already gone, leaving behind rotting crops and desperate farmers. Farmers who were giving an earful to the legislators who voted for the law.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN [ALABAMA FARMER]: No farm workers, which is costing the farmer. Dead crops, spoiling crops is costing the farmer.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN [FARMER]: We need anyone that will listen that we are starving right now.
SNOW: The new law has pitted natural allies against each other. In the southeast corner of Alabama, we talked with four farmers, Amy and Lee Fitch, Jerry Danford and Todd Shelly, who have all seen the exodus of their workers. How many of you voted Republican in the last presidential election?
LEE FITCH: I did.
SNOW: Show of hands.
AMY FITCH: I would consider myself a Republican and normally vote that way.
SNOW: How many of you have ever voted for a Democratic president? Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton?
JERRY DANFORD: Huh-uh
SNOW: And Republican Governor Robert Bentley, who signed the immigration law, did you vote for him?
DANFORD: Yeah, I voted for him.
SNOW: How do you feel about that vote now, Jerry?
DANFORD: Bad. Real bad. It was an honest mistake. But, you know, I feel bad over it.
SNOW: One of the strongest veins of opposition to this law are Republicans. People who voted for you. Farmers.
ROBERT BENTLEY: That's right.
SNOW: This is Governor Bentley's first national TV interview on the immigration law. Diehard Republicans say this is the worst law that they've seen in a long time. It's going to destroy their business.
BENTLEY: If they are using illegal workers right now, will it hurt them? Possibly. Especially this first year or maybe the second year. But eventually it will not hurt them because we will get back to doing things the right way.
SNOW: As the Governor sees it, the flight of undocumented immigrant workers will put a dent in the state's nearly 10% unemployment rate. When they leave, the theory goes, legal residents will take their place. But all the farmers can see is a future without anyone to pick their crops.
TODD SHELLY: I probably can't find anybody else, so that would be it.
SNOW: What do you mean that would be it?
SHELLY: No more watermelons. Not on my farm. Or Lee's farm.
SNOW: But here's the counter-argument, if you paid more, if your hourly wage was higher, you could get Americans to do this work, Jerry.
DANFORD: I doubt it. Regardless of what you offered them within reason, they wouldn't put in the long hours. If they will find me a pool of labor, I will hire them. I'll do that.
SNOW: You just don't think that exists?
DANFORD: That don't exist.
SNOW: That's exactly what Ellen Jenkins discovered when she brought Americans to work at her farm after the Mexicans left. They just couldn't take the long hours of hard, physical labor. Most stayed a day or two. Only one lasted a few weeks before he quit. I'd like to play you a clip of a tomato farmer, if it's okay, that we met yesterday. We asked her directly what would she say to the Governor.
JENKINS: I'd just ask him why couldn't he at least come and see what it was all about before he, you know, jumped the gun. Before you sign a bill and destroy people's life. Why them? You know? You see anybody else that can come up here and work 14 hours a day and do this kind of work, I want to see them.
SNOW: What would you say to her?
BENTLEY: I mean I feel – I really do feel sorry for farmers, but here again, she understands that she is hiring people who are not legal.
SNOW: She's afraid her business is going to go under.
BENTLEY: And I understand that. I understand. And I feel sorry for her and her business, I really do. And we are working, trying to fit workers with jobs. And we're going to continue to do that. We eventually will be able to find workers that will do this job.
SNOW: It's not just agriculture. A new forecast out of the University of Alabama estimates the law will cost the state economy at least $40 million. Workers are fleeing construction companies rebuilding from last spring's tornados. And Latinos, both undocumented and legal residents, are abandoning Hispanic neighborhoods and businesses. The undocumented immigrant population in Alabama was never huge, only 2.5%. Yet as their numbers grew over the past decade, so did anti-immigrant sentiment. This law is popular, more than 60% support the law.
WAYNE FLYNT: Oh, absolutely. Oh, absolutely. There's no question.
SNOW: Historian Wayne Flint of Auburn University is the author of nine books about Alabama's history.
FLYNT: Anti-immigration is probably as popular a political issue as you can find in Alabama. I would remind you, however, that being against the federal government's integration policies in 1963 was equally popular.
SNOW: Are you equating those two things?
FLYNT: I am equating those two. This is just mean-spirited. This is – this is finding the most vulnerable people within a society, people who can't vote, most of them are women and children. They have no political power. And so in a sense it's like the blacks in 1963 who could not vote in Alabama.
SNOW: The Sanchezs agree. They feel like Alabama blacks of the Jim Crow era. And as in 1963, Alabama and the federal government are at odds over a racially charged issue. The woman who owns this bakery, she said the men who did this are racists. She was talking about you, sir.
BENTLEY: Well, that's – I am certainly not racist. I am not racist. In fact, that's insulting to anyone to think that I would be racist. I love everyone.
SNOW: The Governor says Alabama had to pass its law because the federal government wasn't enforcing its own laws on immigration. Can you understand, sir, how this looks to people outside of Alabama?
BENTLEY: I can.
SNOW: People think about Alabama and they think about the past, unfortunately.
BENTLEY: Well, but they shouldn't link it. In the '50s and '60s, the federal government was trying to get Alabama to obey the Constitution. They were right and we were wrong in the South. They were trying to get us to obey the law. Today what we're trying to do is we're trying to get the federal government to obey the law. So it's just the opposite.
SNOW: The day after the immigration law took effect, the Sanchezs' daughter tried to carry on as she normally would, boarding the bus for school. From the bus, she sent us a text message saying that the driver had snapped "You're Mexicans, you're going to have to leave." Maria and Jose Sanchez were trying to get over the shock, as we walked through their neighborhood, already abandoned by many residents.
MRS. SANCHEZ: I don't know where to go, what's going to follow this.
SNOW: What are you going to do, do you know?
MRS. SANCHEZ: We don't know. We just know we're going to go, but we have no idea where. One day, I'll be back with my papers, I promise it. If I came in through the back door before, I'll come in through the front door next time.
SNOW: But for the Sanchez family and others who came to this country illegally, that may be an unrealistic dream. And many won't even try to return.
JENKINS: Some of them said if Alabama didn't want them, then they're taking their whole family. They made it perfectly clear, we won't be back. And I believe them.
WILLIAMS: Kate Snow, we said at the top of the evening, this was getting ugly and it is. And let's all agree that farming is some of the hardest, most back-breaking, honest work in this country. And let's just cut to the economics of it. Aside from the human toll, am I correct in guessing that when more crops end up on the ground rotting and perhaps prices are affected and availability, that then more attention will be focused on this?
SNOW: Perhaps. And in the short term that's certainly true. The people in northern Alabama who love those Chandler Mountain tomatoes, they can't get those at the farmer's market right now. They're getting Tennessee tomatoes instead. However, the farmers did say to us that they will adjust, they'll have to. They'll probably have to plant more row crops coming in the spring because a lot of this law starts to really take effect come January 1st. The employment provisions, which by the way say that not only can you not hire someone who doesn't have the proper documentation, but you have to check every one of your existing employees. If you have more than one employee, you have to check your staff. If you want to hire your mother, you've got to check her paperwork and make sure, through E-verify system, verification system, that she's legit.
WILLIAMS: And more on the web of all those interviews you conducted.
SNOW: Including the Governor, who spoke with us at length, his first television interview on the subject. So there's a lot more of that on our website.
WILLIAMS: Powerful piece of work. Kate Snow, thanks for coming back.