DECATUR, Ala. (AP) – Decatur resident Francisco Hernandez owns a business, helps with charities and won an award at last month's Diversity Summit.
Born and raised in Mexico, he and his wife, Lilia, received a U-visa in 2012, which lasts three years, after Lilia was robbed at gunpoint by three men. Victims of some crimes in the United States are eligible for the U-visa. The couple soon will be able to apply for permanent residency. Five years after that, they can apply to be U.S. citizens.
But living in an area that's still dealing with the aftermath of the nation's toughest immigration law, Hernandez said he can never be good enough.
"I feel frustrated because I pay my taxes. I have good behavior. I don't drink. I don't steal. I don't even smoke. I contribute to the community," Hernandez said.
He continued, "It's sad because it doesn't matter how much you work. It doesn't matter how good you are. It doesn't matter how legal you are. You are nothing here as a Hispanic. We are nothing here."
Hernandez, 49, owns Novedades La Reyna on Central Parkway, a store that has been a party planning center in the Hispanic community since 2001. Mannequins adorned in colorful prom, wedding and quinceañera dresses crowd the room. Diamond-studded tiaras and scepters glisten in display cases.
When he's not at his store, he donates time to the United Way of Morgan County, where he has been a board member for three years. He won the Longevity Award at the sixth annual Diversity Summit.
Billed as the nation's toughest immigration crackdown at the time, Alabama's law has since been mostly gutted by courts. But four years after House Bill 56 was enacted in Alabama, Hernandez said he said he and other members of the Hispanic community still are reeling from the parts of the legislation that remain in effect.
Hernandez said initially Hispanics divorced themselves from their Alabama lives. Renters fled their homes because the law banned landlords from housing undocumented workers. Parents pulled their children out of schools because the law required school officials to check students' legal status. People stayed in their homes, afraid of police who were required to detain those they suspected were undocumented immigrants.
A deteriorating Mexican economy was the reason Hernandez and his family settled in Decatur, which now is 12 percent Hispanic, in February 1997. Ten years later, he had enough success to expand his operations by creating a second store of the same name in Albertville.
Hernandez got his first taste of HB 56 in the Marshall County Courthouse while renewing his annual business license for the Albertville store. Before the law, the process was simple, he said. He just had to produce his Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, a nine-digit number issued by the IRS to those who cannot obtain a Social Security number, and the license was provided.
So he was surprised when the clerk, with a "nasty attitude," quizzed him about his legal status. He was turned away because he couldn't produce documentation of permanent residency, commonly known as a "green card." The same thing happened when he tried to get his business license at the Morgan County Courthouse for the Decatur store.
The courthouse questions frustrated Hernandez less, however, than the reversal in attitude after courts struck down the restriction on business licenses and other provisions of the law.
"When she asked me if I was a legal resident, her [expression] was ugly, but her attitude was uglier, like hatred of me being there. Two months later, I go again, and she was fine," Hernandez said.
"It was like the law gave people permission to be racist."
Athens State University senior Elizabeth Becerra, who also was born in Mexico but moved to Decatur with a green card when she was 8, said friends who fled the state are slowly returning to the community – but with more hesitation. A criminal justice major, Becerra, 24, said north Alabamians of Hispanic origin spend their day tip-toeing through life, whether legal or not. They dodge any interaction with law enforcement and avoid errands that require them to travel around town.
In case they are deported, Becerra said, families have backup plans.
"If we were to be taken to Mexico, we would have a job over there just in case," Becerra said. "Mexico is a difficult place to live right now, but we still have to have plans so we can have a life over there."
Becerra passed her U.S. citizenship test in 2012.
Although Hernandez likes working at his store, the exodus of Hispanics after the passage of HB 56 hurt his business. Sales at the Albertville shop still are not what they used to be, he said. The Decatur store is staying afloat because he's working harder, he said. He conducts hours of research to perfect his elaborate balloon displays. It takes hours more to create them, he said. He now chronicles his client's joyous moments with his photography and videography. He and his wife travel far and wide to decorate an event.
Hernandez said he is lucky to still be working, but the extra labor has uprooted a treasured part of Hispanic culture in America: family.
"Adding things, adding things, adding things. More work, more work, more work," Hernandez said. "Here we destroy the family because the kids, we push them to the side because we work to cover expenses. I try to raise them in a good way, but it's sad because you put your family in second place instead of first place."
Naomi Tsu, Southern Poverty Law Center senior staff attorney, said public uproar caused parts of HB 56 to collapse even before for the law went into effect, and much of the remainder of the law has since been struck down as unconstitutional by courts. Even so, she said, some municipalities have persisted in enforcing parts of the law that are no longer valid.
One woman couldn't get her water turned on in Anniston because she couldn't provide an Alabama driver's license, Tsu said. The SPLC then sent a letter to Anniston explaining the changes in the old law. Within one business day, the woman had water for her family.
Tsu said there are many Hispanic families who don't know to contact the SPLC for incidents. Thus, the individuals find shortcuts, by putting utilities under another name, or simply buying five-gallon jugs of water from the store.
"I can't speak for why people do it, but ignorance of the law is no reason to be breaking the law," Tsu said. "We as a country are a land of immigrants and people who are rightly thought of as warm and welcoming ... The thought of someone being denied basic services just because they are a newcomer is not who we are. We are better than that."