In the weeks after Alabama's immigration law went into effect, Hispanics who initially fled the region began slowly trickling back in, said business owner Ezequiel Gutierrez.
"They're not sure if they're going to stay," said Gutierrez, owner of Mexico Cakes and Bakery in Russellville. "Right now, people come (to the bakery) and buy something, and they're asking if the law will stay.
"They say if the law stays, they will leave in March."
The law grants police officers the right to stop, question, detain and arrest anyone who they suspect is undocumented. It also includes making it illegal for anyone, documented or not, to transport illegal immigrants.
The law is scheduled to come up for discussion after the legislative session convenes Tuesday, and many in Russellville, including Gutierrez, say they hope the law will be repealed.
Jaime Valdez, a Guatemalan immigrant who owns and operates several commercial properties in Russellville, said police officers in Franklin County have, for the most part, refrained from treating Hispanics unfairly.
"When people (who had fled Alabama) heard that everything here was calm, they came back," he said. "There were around 50 guys from here who went all the way to Canada and they're back now."
Valdez said he realizes many portions of immigration law are in limbo. It's unclear whether the federal government will uphold all or even the majority of the law many have dubbed the harshest in the nation. Still, he said, he doesn't see any way the law will make it through legislation.
"(Legislators) will find out that it's not about immigration, it's about race," Valdez said. "It goes against the Constitution."
In response the state's immigration law, Franklin County residents have formed the North Alabama Hispanic Coalition for Equal Rights. Executive Assistant Angelica Perez said the group's acronym, NAHCER, is reminiscent of the spanish word "nacer," which means "to be born."
"Our organization was born to defend those who do not have a voice here," she said.
Perez, along with the coalition's adviser, the Rev. Charles Dale, and Director Evelyn Servin, have been making trips to Montgomery to lobby against the law.
"Our main goal right now is to repeal the law," Servin said "We want to teach the legislators and the community about the effects it has in our community — especially in our Hispanic community in Russellville."
First and foremost, she said, racism has become a part of Hispanics' daily lives as a result of new law.
"We thought that was a dead issue, but it's still live at heart and around more than ever now," Servin said. "I know that a lot of people here in our state are racist, and they won't say it out loud. They will keep it to themselves or just say it within their own groups. But now with the law going into effect, they can openly say whatever they want to anyone.
"With the law, we have empowered them."
Servin cited specific examples of Hispanics being refused basic rights, such as a mother of three being unable to obtain a library card because she didn't have documentation, Hispanics being denied medical treatment and others refusing to call the police even in the face of domestic violence for fear of arrest.
"People are being denied some of their basic rights as individuals," Servin said. "There are violations of dignity and violations of respect."
Hispanic children, too, are suffering emotionally, she said.
"They're being made fun of at schools from all over the state with other children saying ‘When are you leaving? When are you packing your things up?'" she said.
Dale said when he hears of instances like the ones Servin named, he has flashbacks of his own time marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., fighting for civil rights.
Dale said the only thing that can fix the issues Hispanics currently face is repealing the law entirely. No part of it can continue on if there is to be justice, he said.
"I have flashbacks about this same scenario because of the fact that the black community was treated this same way or worse," Dale said. "Now that the Hispanic community is here, we want (the law) repealed. We don't want any tweaking (to the law). That's the same way it was in the '50s, '60s and '70s when blacks were getting (registered) to vote ... (those in power) came up with all these different little things to get around giving blacks their full rights to even vote.
"We're sick and tired of this kind of problem, because all (the government) wants to do is just work around it — the racism and the things that come out of (the law) will still be done. We want to rid it from happening, period."
Perez, Servin and Dale agreed that there should be immigration reform, but it should come about after the law is repealed. The main problem with immigration, they said, is becoming a legal citizen is extremely costly and can take up to 20 years.
"For a lot of people, it is easy to say, ‘Why don't they just come in legally to the county?'" Perez said. "That would be wonderful if it was such an easy process. But many people pay over $20,000 to get documents, and at the end of the day, they still don't have them.
"You put your paperwork in, pay for lawyers, but you still might not get documents."
Servin said there are people who applied in 1988 who are just now hearing whether they'll be documented.
"In a perfect world, (there would be something) you could show to prove that you've already applied for citizenship," Servin said. "But even if you had those documents, cops don't know how immigration works. That's a federal job.
"As soon as immigration gets fixed — because it's a broken system — then we can do something about (documents). But now, there is nothing that can be done."
Dale said for now, the coalition is working in hopes of making lawmakers empathize with Hispanics who are experiencing bigotry, but if it came down to it, the group would have no problem taking their mission to the streets, he said.
"By being in the South and living in the South all of my life in the state of Alabama, again, I can say, it's just like it was in the '60s," Dale said. "If we have to go back to marching every day, we're going back to it."
Hannah Mask can be reached at 256-740-5728 or hannah.mask@TimesDaily.com.