Ala. Mayor Defends Controversial Immigration Law

The U.S. Justice Department filed an emergency motion on Friday, asking the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to block implementation of Alabama's immigration law. The law gives police the authority to ask for proof at traffic stops that a person is legally in the country, and it requires state schools to verify a student's legal status during registration. The law has prompted several students to withdraw from classes and families to flee the state. Tony Cox speaks with Lindsey Lyons, the mayor of Albertville, Alabama, about the town's dwindling Latino population since the law went into effect in late September.

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TONY COX, host: I'm Tony Cox and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up hip-hop culture has revolutionized the way businesses big and small connect with consumers. We'll talk about why with marketing strategist Steve Stoute author of a new book, "The Tanning of America." That's in just a few moments. But first we go to Alabama where that states immigration law considered to be the toughest in the nation is facing a challenge from the U.S. Justice Department.

On Friday, the department filed an emergency motion asking the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to block the law's implementation. The new law among other things grants local and state police the authority to ask for proof at traffic stops that someone is in the country legally. It also requires schools to verify children's legal status when they first register. In a moment, we'll hear from Birmingham News Metro columnist John Archibald. First though, we turn to Lindsey Lyons. He is the mayor of Albertville, Alabama, a farming community about 21,000 people strong.

Mr. Mayor, welcome to the program.

Mayor LINDSEY LYONS: Thank you, sir.

COX: Mayor Lyons, you have been on record supporting this law. Why?

LYONS: Well, you know, the majority of the public has demanded action for a number of years now, and when you get to the point to where it affects your quality of life, our children, and our education values and so forth and so on, you know, it was time for some action and, you know, when your federal government continually does not enforce the laws that we currently have and enforce our borders as well as they could, that's when states like Alabama step up and take some type of legislative action because the people demand it.

COX: How is the law working out so far?

LYONS: We've seen - we haven't had an exodus of thousands here in Albertville, Alabama. We have in the last census numbers about a 22,000 population and of that number we have about 7,500 to 8,000 Hispanic population. We've had about 130 students that have withdrawn from our school system currently. If you multiply that out maybe three to four family members per unit, just do the math and that's probably how many have left along with some others.

It's hard to peg on it but the fact of the matter is there's less traffic on our streets now. There's less activity in the Hispanic-owned businesses that are here in Albertville. So, we can tell a noticeable difference already.

COX: What have you been telling those people about the law - the Hispanics that make up roughly 22 percent of the 21,000 people or so that live in Albertville? What have you been telling them, and - actually, what have they been telling you in terms of their response to the law and what have you been saying back to them?

LYONS: Well, unfortunately over the years and we've reached out to that community, but unfortunately over the years there hasn't been the communication that we'd like to have with the Hispanic community. And a good example of that was last year, when we had a tornado come through our city here and it did affect part of the Hispanic community and their neighborhoods and we tried to reach out to them but they would not take - it was a handful that would take the services that we could provide on American Red Cross, etc.

And they would tend to let their churches, you know, handle their needs and their wants, you know. So, we've always had the issue here of good communication with the community. Now, we've had some pastors that have come just recently to speak with our chief of police about the affects of the immigration law and are we going to enforce it? And basically, that's all the communication we've had currently.

COX: How do you tell people and convince them that this law is about illegal immigration and not about getting rid of Latino's, period?

LYONS: Well, that's exactly right and it's quite simple. You know, once an individual sneaks or is transported across our borders without authorization, you've broken our laws. And it's quite simple, and that's basically the format that we're looking at here. We have - well, listen, we're a Christian community here and we have empathy for the children of these Hispanic families.

I have children in school that are students with some of these that are going to be affected because either one or both of their parents is illegal, but the child was born here and is an American citizen, you know, and you got to have empathy for that. But at the same time, you know, the law is the law and it's basically that premise on what we're speaking of anytime this issue comes up.

COX: Final question is this, mayor. As we mentioned the Justice Department is challenging the law. What happens if the Justice Department is successful? What happens to Albertville in that circumstance?

LYONS: You know, if the Department of Justice and other groups are successful, honestly, it just remains to be seen on what's going to happen. I still think you're going to see in Alabama and Albertville still an exodus of some of them because they don't know what the future is going to hold. And eventually this is probably going to go to the Supreme Court. But I think you'll see a good portion of the Hispanic community remain in parts and pockets of the state.

But being that there's an unknown factor there I still think we're going to see an exodus of those moving to other states that don't have any pending legislation.

COX: Very briefly do you like what this has done to your town?

LYONS: Well, there are parts of the bill quite frankly that I didn't agree with but what it's done to the town, you know, you can listen to both sides of people's views; the critics and the ones that support the bill. I tell you why I support it and why I'm grateful right now. We've had 9 percent unemployment for a number of months now. We've got close to 4,000 people in Marshall County out of work and one of our local poultry plants, Wayne Farms, just had a job fair recently and we had hundreds of Americans apply for these jobs that in the past could not get the jobs because they would hire the illegal workforce, okay?

And that's what I'm proud of right now. And this is what this thing has been about all along - jobs, jobs and jobs.

COX: Lindsey Lyons is the mayor of Albertville, Alabama. He joined us on the line from his office. Mr. Mayor, thank you very much.

LYONS: Thank you, sir.

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