For Sarai Portillo, executive director of the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ACIJ), immigration reform is not only pertinent to our nation’s economic prosperity, it’s also a matter of public safety. When the state’s undocumented population feels high anxiety and stress, and lives in a constant state of fear of deportation, they are afraid to report crimes, Portillo says. As a result, fewer incidents of domestic abuse, robberies, and other violent acts get reported to police, something that has negative consequences for all Alabamans.
In 2003, Portillo left her own family behind in Mexico to conduct her dissertation research on immigrant movement in America. Right away, she witnessed the challenges that the complicated U.S. immigration system creates for its newest residents, and she felt compelled to help. “I believed that by doing organizing work, I would learn more about immigrant rights,” she says. Portillo became a U.S. citizen in 2014, after traveling between the United States and Mexico to visit her mother and sister proved too troublesome. “Every time I’d go through security, I’d get detained by customs,” she says. “It was a constant struggle.”
Since arriving in America 14 years ago, Portillo has helped Alabama’s immigrant population become active contributors. One current project at the coalition, which serves more than 5,000 supporters in 14 chapters across the state, attempts to secure driver’s licenses for undocumented residents, which allows them to work, support local businesses, and pay more in taxes. “Right now there’s been a lot of development in Alabama,” says Portillo. “And immigrants are part of the local workforce and moving that forward. One of our board members, Angel Aldana, is a construction worker who works nights to build bridges and highways around the state. That’s definitely a contribution for our infrastructure and our local economy.”
The system has to be reformed in a way that works for these people who really just came here to have a better life for their family.
If spending nearly two decades working with our nation’s foreign-born population has taught her anything, says Portillo, it’s that people underestimate the value that immigrants bring to their communities. “There’s always been misunderstandings about the contributions immigrants have made to this country. Like people think we don’t pay taxes, but we do. Every day when we buy food, clothing, gas, all those things,” she says. Many undocumented immigrants also have income taxes and social security and medicare payments deducted from their paychecks. “And in addition to the domestic and construction work we do, we’re teachers, doctors, researchers, and entrepreneurs who create even more jobs for our communities.” Portillo is right. Immigrants in her district paid more than $70 million in taxes and held more than $224 million in spending power for area businesses in 2014. They also make up a significant portion of her district’s construction, accommodation, food services, and agriculture industries.
The best thing for everyone, says Portillo, would be to allow these new Americans to live, work, and contribute in the country they choose to call home. “There should be a way for us to not be criminalized and persecuted because we want to live in another part of the world,” she says. “The system has to be reformed in a way that works for these people who really just came here to have a better life for their family.”