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Alabama suburb struggles with influx of Hispanic immigrants
Associated Press

HOOVER, Ala. - A Mexican woman got a taste of what critics call heavy-handed tactics in one of Alabama's most desirable suburbs when men in dark uniforms banged on her apartment door early one morning.

The woman, who is in the country illegally, said the men identified themselves as "immigration police," pushed her down on a couch and ordered her to "keep your mouth shut" when she asked why they were looking for her son, a 15-year-old Hoover High School student.

The woman, who didn't want her name revealed for fear of retribution or deportation, said her son was away working and was not arrested during a sweep in suburban Birmingham last week. But she got a warning from the officer who seemed in charge.

"He said, `You better get out of here because you don't have any immigration papers,'" said the mother, speaking in Spanish during an interview through a translator.

Amid rising alarm among Hispanics and other Latinos, federal and city officials deny any mistreatment or attempt to intimidate a growing number of immigrants, many presumed to be in the Hoover area illegally. U.S. immigration officials note that being in the country illegally is a crime, and federal Homeland Security spokesman Marc Raimondi said these initiatives are targeting gang members suspected of criminal activity, not Hispanics.

But the confrontation with the woman, part of a sweep that resulted in the detention of at least 30 Latinos in three cities, was only the latest in a series of incidents in which opponents say authorities are using fear in a bid to scare off the flood of illegal immigrants in Hoover, a Birmingham suburb and one of Alabama's most affluent areas.

"I don't know what the legal stance is, but I feel like this is the wrong way of doing things," said Jerry Beck, a Hoover resident who has befriended several Hispanic families. "(Americans) wouldn't put up with it, so why should they?"

Mayor Tony Petelos said last week's arrests were made by federal officials, not local police. And Bob Berry, a city official involved in immigration issues, denied Hoover was trying to intimidate Spanish-speaking people or others of Latin origin.

Rather, Berry said, leaders are following the lead from Washington and letting federal officials deal with illegal immigrants.

"The logic is to wait and see what happens with Congress before going too far locally," said Berry, director of Hoover's Department of Homeland Security and Immigration, the only municipal agency of its kind in Alabama.

Temple Black, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the arrests were part of an "anti-gang enforcement effort." He declined comment on how the raids came about or whether local officials requested the action.

But dealing with the influx of Hispanic people is a hot political topic in Hoover, where immigration became an issue in the mayoral election last year and leaders established the city office headed by Berry partly to deal with issues of immigration, normally a federal issue.

A 2003 Census analysis estimated that Hoover, located just south of Birmingham, had nearly 63,000 residents. Of those, 2,380 were listed as being Hispanic, but the number appears woefully low.

Dozens of men line the grassy strips along heavily traveled Lorna Road most mornings waiting for Americans to stop and hire them for day-labor jobs, and the city's schools were almost 5 percent Hispanic last year, according to state records, with 543 Spanish speakers among 11,587 total students.

Several apartment complexes in Hoover are so full of immigrants even Hispanics call them "Mexico City," the same derisive term used by some English speakers.

The influx has created a public backlash among people who say illegal immigrants are costing U.S. citizens money and taking away work from Americans. To highlight the issue, a radio show posts photos on its Web site of Hispanic day-laborers and the people who stop to hire them in Hoover.

Federal immigration officers arrested 27 day laborers in Hoover last year, describing them as illegal immigrants. A federal official said three of the 27 may have been suspects in crimes.

Helen Hamilton Rivas, an advocate for Hispanics, said officials are too aggressive in Hoover in dealing with Latin American immigrants, who are coming to Alabama primarily for work that doesn't exist at home.

"It looks like they're trying to scare people away," said Rivas. "They're sweeping up a lot of people who aren't a problem rather than going after ones who are."

But Berry, the city's Homeland Security director, denied that Hoover is trying to shut out immigrants. Instead, he said, the city is taking a "middle of the road" approach by attempting to become neither a haven for illegal immigrants nor a place where they are harassed.

City officials have been getting calls for "quite some time" from English speakers complaining about large numbers of illegal immigrants in the area, Berry said, but his office has yet to do much on the problem, leaving most enforcement work to federal officers