How a radio station in Alabama is taking on the nation’s toughest anti-immigrant law (Part One)

kids at anti hb 56 rally A year ago, Orlando Rosa was broadcasting music and setting up on-air talent for La Jefa, the largest Spanish-language radio station in Alabama. Then, in June, Governor Robert Bentley signed into law HB 56, on paper the strictest state law for criminalizing undocumented immigrants. It allows police to detain people they suspect of being undocumented immigrants, requires K-12 schools to check the immigration status of their students, and makes contracts, like leases, that are signed by undocumented immigrants unenforceable.

With the advent of HB 56, Rosa and La Jefa radio host Jose Antonio Castro have transformed the station into a hub for information-sharing for Alabama’s Hispanic communities as they deal with the devastating impacts of the law.

I spoke to Rosa over the phone on Valentine’s Day, as he and Castro were driving home to Birmingham from an anti-HB 56 rally in Montgomery.  They had just completed a 56-hour fast in protest of HB 56, during which they camped out on the lawn of the Governor’s mansion and broadcast live for 56 hours.

Photo: Children at the One Heart, One Alabama Rally on February 14th, 2012.  Photo from Alabama Coaltion for Immigrant Justice, by Angie Wright.

Q: Tell me a bit about yourself?

A: My name is Orlando Rosa. I work for La Jefa radio station here in Birmingham. I'm of Puerto Rican descent, born and raised in New York.

Q: Tell us about your Route 56 campaign.

A: For Route 56, me and Jose Antonio walked to the 12 cities with the biggest Hispanic populations here in Alabama. We walked all the way from Athens down to Montgomery just getting stories and testimonies of people that have been affected by the HB 56 law. Families have been separated because of one family member not being from the country. We heard about disintegrating families, a lot of racism, a lot of racist people attacking Hispanics, telling them "go back to your country," not wanting to help them at local grocery stores.

Q: Is there a particular story that really hit you hard?

A: Yeah, the main one that we heard repetitively is the story of families being torn apart. Kids going home and finding out that their mom isn't there, because she got stopped by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) on the way home from taking them to school, and they haven't seen her again. It is legal residents, legal kids that are born here, and it’s not their fault that their parents aren't from here.  

And kids being scared to go to school. They're scared of being bullied by American people, because they are not from here. Or they are from here, but their skin color “shows” that they're not from here. They look like they're from the other side. They tell them, "go back to your country."  So that's something that hit us hard -- kids scared to go to school because of feeling that they would be attacked by their fellow students.

Q: It sounds like this law has allowed ordinary people to release this racism.

A: Exactly. Ever since this law came in, you see more of that just out, open, in the public. It definitely has helped a lot of racism to basically come back alive.

Q:  I heard reports of folks in agriculture having a lot of trouble because a lot of workers just left.

A: Yup.  That's something we also got to see face to face during Route 56.  We spoke to the owner of a tomato farm, and he said, “I had 50 or 60 employees and now we are down to three.  Everybody else fled, because they heard about the law, they just don't feel safe here.” This has definitely affected them a lot, they are losing a lot of crops. They've tried to hire US. citizens, but they just don't want to do the work.  A lot of people don't last but 4-5 hours, they quit on the spot.  Hispanic workers are very hard workers, and he said it is just not the same since they left.  So, it has definitely affected their business a lot.

Q: In terms of people leaving the state, can you give me a sense of how large a scale that is happening on?

A: A percentage is hard to say. A lot of them have come back from neighboring states that they fled to when things got bad. But at the same time a lot of them are frightened to come back, because of people being racist to them.

Q: Are you getting the sense that enforcement is really strict?  Like cops are detaining people?

A: We haven't heard of cops enforcing like people were thinking it was going to happen, no. But what we have seen is that people who have a delinquent history have been approached now more than ever.  We have heard a lot of stories at the radio station of people calling in saying, “Hey, ICE just came to our house,” or “Homeland Security just came to our house and picked up my dad.”  Then we start researching that; We try to get attorneys involved. We find out it's because they had a delinquent record, like a DUI or not having gone to court on a regular traffic ticket.

Read Part Two, in which Orlando Rosa discusses how he’s using radio as a tool to fight HB 56.

Ada McMahon is a Media Fellow at Bridge The Gulf (, a community journalism project for Gulf Coast communities working towards justice and sustainability.  She previously worked as a blogger and online organizer at Green For All, a national non-profit that fights pollution and poverty through "an inclusive green economy".  She is from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and currently lives in New Orleans, Louisiana.