The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama stands strong in heated political climate

By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For the Birmingham Times

Michelle Ocampo, a family advocate at the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (¡HiCA!), talks with a client in Homewood, Ala., Monday, June 19, 2017. (Photo by Mark Almond)

Lynda Wilson didn’t quite know what she would find when she visited the Hispanic Interest of Coalition of Alabama (¡HICA!). The Vestavia Hills resident is chair of a refugee interest group, and she had taken in a Colombian woman with a 17-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son. Her guests didn’t speak English and didn’t know where to turn.

Wilson found a haven at the ¡HICA! office in Homewood.

“I’ve gotten a whole list of jobs [my guest] can apply for,” Wilson recently told staff at the ¡HICA! office. “It’s wonderful! You guys are going to be a lifesaver. I’m just telling you … praises that ¡HICA! is here.”

Given today’s political climate, ¡HICA!’s services are needed more than ever for many Latinos.

With President Donald Trump in the White House and the memory of the Alabama Legislature’s House Bill 56 (HB 56)—the harshest anti-immigration law in the U.S. from 2011—fresh in the minds of many, more than a few Latinos consider these very scary times.

¡HICA! has made clear that it will stand with the Latino community.

“Many of the Latino families we work with are concerned about the executive orders signed by President Trump, more yet, they are frightened of the uncertainty about what will come next,” the organization said on its website. “Be assured that ¡HICA! and its allies are closely monitoring the situation, beginning to strategize around potential policy changes, and will remain vigilant in keeping you informed.”

¡HICA! Executive Director Isabel Rubio said immigration-related rhetoric is not new.

“It has been taken to the national stage at the highest level of office in our country, but I don’t think it’s a new thing,” she said. “HB56 said the same thing, and I think SB1070 in Arizona said the same thing. But now it’s at the pinnacle of government in our country, and it’s based on fear—fear that ‘Someone’s going to get something I have or that I want’ and that there’s not enough to go around.

“It’s easy to change the conversation and say there are people who shouldn’t be here because they crossed a river and came into a country—an artificial border that men sat down and created—looking for a better way of life,” Rubio said.

She continued, “People want to say that’s wrong and paint this picture of rapists, criminals, drug dealers, as opposed to looking at the real issue, which is income inequality and an inequitable tax structure, particularly in [Alabama], that is codified for oppression.”

The organization’s mission is straightforward: the social, civic and economic integration of Hispanic families in Alabama. Its vision: an Alabama in which everyone has full and equal participation in our state’s civic, cultural, social, and economic life.

Everyone has a right to decent, safe housing and decent, well-resourced public education, Rubio said, everyone has the right to grow up with access to good-quality health care and access to good, healthy food.

“I believe these are fundamental rights for all people. But somehow there’s this notion that if we allow everyone to have that, ‘Somebody’s going to take something away from me.’”

Wendy Yasmin Garcia, assistant to the manager of Mi Pueblo Supermarket, poses in Homewood, Ala., Monday, June 19, 2017. (Photo by Mark Almond)

¡HICA!’s Mission

Founded as a nonprofit in 1999, ¡HICA! was created to provide referrals and assistance for Alabama’s growing Latino population. Since its launch, the group’s mission has expanded to include education, community, and civic engagement and advocacy. ¡HICA! helps people become American citizens, and it also helps young people get into college while helping their families understand that process.

“We help people open businesses,” Rubio said. “We opened almost 40 businesses in 2016.”

Eulogia Miguel owns The Pizza Star in Columbiana Square in Columbiana, Ala. The Pleasant Grove resident learned to make pizzas working in Texas and built on that experience during a return to his native Vicente Guerrero about two hours from Mexico City. But he didn’t know the particulars of launching a business in Alabama until he visited ¡HICA!.

“Seriously, no, I [didn’t] know anything about a business,” the 52-year-old husband and father of two said. “The first day, I went to ¡HICA! and filled out papers. The next day, I opened this business. ¡HICA! helped me get the [limited liability company (LLC)] license, too. I went there to fill out papers, and they gave it to me the same day … the same day.”

Someone had told Miguel he’d have to wait 30 days to get what he needed to start his business, and someone else said 90 days.

“I went there at about 8 a.m., and by 10 a.m. I had my papers,” he said.

Now Miguel’s restaurant has five employees and is open seven days a week.

Resources

¡HICA!’s resources include staffers like Scarlett Lara-Alcantara, an asset-building and economic-development associate. When someone seeks help starting a business, she asks for a form of identification and an identification number, but not how they came into the country.

“It’s irrelevant,” Lara-Alcantara said. “For city and county purposes, they don’t ask. And as an organization, we can’t ask about that.”

Rubio said, “We’re pro-immigrant but that doesn’t mean we’re pro–illegal immigration. We would never tell someone to come here without doing things the proper way.

“How people choose to come to this country is not our issue. Our issue is to help people deal with the issues they encounter once they are here. Our issue is to help people be the most productive that they can be, particularly as it relates to college access, small business, and immigration work. We want to make sure we’re doing that not just for Latinos but for anybody.”

“We’re Here”

The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (¡HiCA!) building is shown in Homewood, Ala., Monday, June 19, 2017. (Photo by Mark Almond)

When passing the beige brick building at 117 Southcrest Dr. in Homewood, some may wonder about the large letters on its side—¡HICA!—and the exclamation points, the upside-down one that precedes it and the conventional one at the end. Latinos know that this punctuation is used to convey excitement. Rubio said the punctuation conveys that ¡HICA! is yelling from the mountaintop.

“We’re here,” she said proudly. “We are here. We. Period. Are. Period. Here. Period. Exclamation point!”

Click here to read more about Isabel Rubio.