The vanishing began Wednesday night, the most frightened families packing up their cars as soon as they heard the news.
They left behind mobile homes, sold fully furnished for a thousand dollars or even less. Or they just closed up and, in a gesture of optimism, left the keys with a neighbor. Dogs were fed one last time; if no home could be found, they were simply unleashed.
Two, 5, 10 years of living here, and then gone in a matter of days, to Tennessee, Illinois, Oregon, Florida, Arkansas, Mexico — who knows? Anywhere but Alabama.
The exodus of Hispanic immigrants began just hours after a federal judge in Birmingham upheld most provisions of the state’s far-reaching immigration enforcement law.
The judge, Sharon Lovelace Blackburn, upheld the parts of the law allowing state and local police to ask for immigration papers during routine traffic stops, rendering most contracts with illegal immigrants unenforceable and requiring schools to ascertain the immigration status of children at registration time.
When Judge Blackburn was finished, Alabama was left with what the governor called “the strongest immigration law in this country.” It went into effect immediately, though her ruling is being appealed by the Justice Department and a coalition of civil rights groups.
In the days since, school superintendents have reassured parents — one even did so on television in Spanish — that nothing had changed for children who were already enrolled. Wary police departments around the state said they were, for now, awaiting instructions on how to carry out the law.
For many immigrants, however, waiting seemed just too dangerous. By Monday afternoon, 123 students had withdrawn from the schools in this small town in the northern hills, leaving behind teary and confused classmates. Scores more were absent. Statewide, 1,988 Hispanic students were absent on Friday, about 5 percent of the entire Hispanic population of the school system.
John Weathers, an Albertville businessman who rents and has sold houses to many Hispanic residents, said his occupancy had suddenly dropped by a quarter and might drop further, depending on what happens in the next week. Two people who had paid off their mortgages called him asking if they could sell back their homes, Mr. Weathers said.
Grocery stores and restaurants were noticeably less busy, which in some cases may be just as well, because some employees stopped showing up. In certain neighborhoods the streets are uncommonly quiet, like the aftermath of some sort of rapture.
Drawn by work in the numerous poultry processing plants, Hispanic immigrants have been coming to Albertville for years, long enough ago that some of the older ones gained amnesty under the immigration law of 1986. But the influx picked up over the last decade, and the signs on Main Street are now mostly bilingual, when they include English at all.
What the new immigration law means on a large scale will become clearest in a place like Albertville, whether it will deliver jobs to citizens and protect taxpayers as promised or whether it will spell economic disaster as opponents fear.
Critics of the law, particularly farmers, contractors and home builders, say the measure has already been devastating, leaving rotting crops in fields and critical shortages of labor. They say that even fully documented Hispanic workers are leaving, an assessment that seems to be borne out in interviews here. The legal status of family members is often mixed — children are often American-born citizens — but the decision whether to stay rests on the weakest link. Keep reading . . .I am speechless.