CROSSVILLE, Ala. — Most every face in Crossville's small downtown is white except at the elementary school. There, Spanish-speaking children with black hair and dark skin far outnumber their Caucasian classmates.
As much as anywhere in Alabama, Crossville is Exhibit A for supporters of a tough new state law cracking down on illegal immigration. And residents — both English- and Spanish-speaking — are paying close attention as a federal judge this week considers whether to let the law take effect Sept. 1.
U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn will hear arguments Wednesday in Birmingham from Hispanic organizations, public interest groups and religious leaders who want the law blocked. The Obama administration has also said the law should be blocked, arguing the state is unconstitutionally attempting to usurp federal immigration law.
The Alabama attorney general's office declined comment on how it will defend the law, but state legislators who support it filed court documents last week saying the federal government is illegally treading on state sovereignty.
About 90 miles northeast of Birmingham, Crossville looks like any other rural, mostly white city in the state. The main part of town is a mix of white-owned small businesses, churches and old homes.
But five miles west lies Kilpatrick, a community some Alabama-born residents call "little Tijuana" because of its overwhelming number of Spanish-speaking immigrants. There, roadside signs are in Spanish and many residents work in poultry plants. They live in mobile homes and send their children to town to attend the elementary school, which is about 65 percent Hispanic.
Census figures show 1,297 people live in Crossville, and all but nine of them are white. But DeKalb County, where Crossville is located, has more than 7,100 residents. Many live in Kilpatrick, where scores of families live along dirt roads cut into rolling fields. School buses loaded with Hispanic children make the trip each day between those dusty neighborhoods and Crossville Elementary.
Jeff Simpson runs a gas station in Crossville, and he's tired of seeing people he believes are illegal immigrants use state welfare money to buy food and other items. He said Alabama natives are spending too much educating the children of immigrants. Simpson believes legislators were right to pass a law that both supporters and critics say is the nation's toughest on illegal immigration.
"I don't have anything against them, but I don't like them putting nothing into the system and getting free crap," Simpson said. "They're bleeding the government dry."
A few miles away in Kilpatrick, Ivan Barrera said the law already is hurting business at his supermarket. While school officials say Hispanic enrollment is up from last year, Barrera said some immigrant families are leaving out of fear of being stopped by police and put in jail if they don't have proper documents.
"It's hard for the Spanish-speaking people," said Barrera, a legal resident originally from Mexico who is married to a U.S. citizen. "They are scared of the police."
The law — passed by Alabama's Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Robert Bentley in June — includes many of the same provisions as similar laws passed in states including Arizona and Georgia. Backers say the law is needed to prevent valuable services from going to people living in the state illegally and to save jobs for legal residents in of Alabama, where unemployment is 10 percent.
The sweeping law would let police check documents and arrest anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant if the person is stopped for some other reason. It also would require all businesses to check the legal status of workers using a federal database called E-Verify.
The law makes it a crime for landlords to knowingly rent to an illegal immigrant, hire an illegal immigrant or give an illegal immigrant a ride. It also requires public schools to check the immigration status of their students, although it doesn't bar illegal immigrants from attending public schools.
"We can't continue to let people flood over the border unchecked. It's a drain on our infrastructure and it's a security risk," said Brooklyn Roberts, executive director of the conservative Eagle Forum of Alabama, which lobbied for such a bill for years.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit seeking to block the law include the Montgomery-based Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, where legal director Shay Farley said parts of the law step into federal powers and will likely be blocked based on similar laws and legal challenges in other states including Arizona.
"I believe the legal arguments are strong to block the law," she said.
At the Crossville Junk Store, where Hispanics sometimes come in to buy used clothes and other items, Pam Todd doesn't see Hispanics as a threat. She doesn't know which of her customers are in the country legally, but she said they all came to the United States as economic refugees trying to improve things for their families.
"They risked their lives to get here," she said. "I don't see illegal immigration as a problem, I see it as people looking for a better life."
At Crossville Elementary, Principal Ed Burke already is trying to figure out what to do if the judge allows the law to take effect as scheduled. Since public schools would be required to determine the immigration status of students, he's got to figure out how to devote more staff time to checking paperwork and filling out state reports in a school that he says could already use additional staff and teachers.
School workers who complain about the hundreds of Hispanic students at the elementary school and nearby Crossville High School don't realize they'd likely be unemployed without them, he said. Burke doesn't care for the law — which he calls "lame brained" — but he's also getting ready to do his part should it take effect at the end of the month.
"We have been advised by our board attorney here in DeKalb County that if this law does take effect that we will have to abide by it or we will be charged with not obeying the law," Burke said.