Isabel Rubio, a second-generation Mexican American and executive director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (HICA), believes that when we give all Americans – immigrants or otherwise – equal opportunities, the entire country benefits. “Forget what side of the immigration line you’re on, this is an economic issue,” says Rubio, whose non-profit and its annual budget of $1.4 million is dedicated to the social, civic, and economic integration of Hispanic families in Alabama. Indeed, Rubio questions what would happen to cities like Birmingham, Montgomery, and Tuscaloosa in Alabama’s 7th Congressional district if immigrants weren’t there to do the labor-intensive jobs Americans typically don’t want, or to contribute to entitlement funds like social security. “The whole infrastructure would fall apart.”
Rubio saw this happen in 2011, when Alabama’s governor signed one of the nation’s strictest anti-immigration bills into law. “It impacted every aspect of people’s lives from getting water service to renting an apartment to registering kids in school,” says Rubio. “There were signs in restaurants that said, ‘Sorry, no tomatoes,’ because suddenly there were no workers willing to pick them. All these hourly, blue-collar jobs – lawn services, the poultry and timber industries – folks were up a creek!”
Forget what side of the immigration line you’re on, this is an economic issue.
In 2012, the United States Court of Appeals partially invalidated the bill, but Rubio says the current immigration system still doesn’t fill the needs of the state in terms of human capital. “The quotas need to be looked at,” Rubio says of the country’s prevailing laws. “We have to deal with the people who are in line, be fair and equitable to them. We have to recognize those who have been contributing to the success of this country for all the years that they have been here.”
In addition to providing leadership training and social services to more than 5,000 families a year, HICA also helps them become more involved with American political and civic life. “If you isolate yourself, you become an easy victim for exploitation,” says Rubio. It’s a dynamic that she saw play out in the 1960s, among African Americans in her hometown of McComb, Mississippi. As an adult doing social work in Birmingham, she saw the same kind of inequality impact the city’s Hispanic population. So she decided to act.
“We can’t repeat that part of our history,” says Rubio, who founded HICA to level the playing field for immigrants. “We started this organization to help them find their place in the community and not get taken advantage of,” she says, noting that for many of her clients getting involved with their neighborhoods means buying a house and joining the tax base. But the real way to ensure an equal playing field is a pathway to citizenship. “They need to become citizens so that they can become part of the political process.” That, Rubio says, “begins to give you a community that has the best interests of everyone in mind.”