MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama Republicans who pushed through the nation’s toughest law against illegal immigrants are having second thoughts amid a backlash from big business, fueled by the embarrassing traffic stops of two foreign employees tied to the state’s prized Honda and Mercedes plants.
The Republican attorney general is calling for some of the strictest parts of it to be repealed.
Some Republican lawmakers say they now want to make changes in the law that was pushed quickly through the legislature.
Gov. Robert Bentley, who signed the law, said he is contacting foreign executives to tell them they and their companies are still welcome in Alabama.
“We are not anti-foreign companies. We are very pro-foreign companies,” he said.
Luther Strange, the attorney general who is defending the law in court, this week recommended repealing sections that make it a crime for an illegal immigrant to fail to carry registration documents and that require public schools to collect information on the immigration status of students. Both sections have been put on hold temporarily by a federal court.
Two foreign workers for Honda and Mercedes were recently stopped by police for failing to carry proof of legal residency. The cases were quickly dropped, but not without lots of international attention that Alabama officials didn’t want.
One of the groups challenging the law in court said the auto workers’ cases turned public opinion.
“Suddenly the reality of what the state has done hit people in the face,” said Richard Cohen, the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Before 2011, Republicans tried repeatedly to pass an immigration law but were always stopped by the dominant Democrats. That changed when Alabama voters elected a Republican legislative super majority – the first since Reconstruction. The result was a law described by critics and supporters as the toughest and most comprehensive in the nation.
It requires a check of legal residency when conducting everyday transactions such as buying a car license, enrolling a child in school, getting a job or renewing a business license. After the U.S. Justice Department and other groups challenged the law, the federal courts put some portions on hold, but major provisions took effect in late September.
Alabama suddenly found itself at the center of the nation’s immigration debate, ahead of other states with tough laws, including Arizona, Georgia and South Carolina.
Within Alabama, much of the debate is within the business community that helped fund Republicans’ new strength.
The Birmingham Business Alliance this week called for revisions in the law, expressing worry that it’s tainting Alabama’s image around the world. The group also said complying with the law is a burden for businesses and local governments, but did not offer specific changes.
James T. McManus, chairman of the Alliance and CEO of one of the state’s largest businesses, the Energen Corp., said revisions “are needed to ensure that momentum remains strong in our competitive economic development efforts.”
In Thomasville, a town of 4,700 about 80 miles southwest of Montgomery, Mayor Sheldon Day worries about recruiting industries.
He said about 25 foreign companies have visited the town to consider possible plant sites since Thomasville recruited a Canadian steel company in July 2010.
“Up until a few months ago, nobody raised the immigration issue,” he said. But in the last few months, it’s been brought up regularly. Day suspects competing states are portraying Alabama as hostile to foreigners even though he says that is not the truth. Based on the questions he gets from industrial prospects, he also believes competing states are recounting stories from Alabama’s civil rights past.
“It’s bringing back old images from 40 or 50 year ago,” he said.
The governor says he’s declined many national TV interviews about the law because he doesn’t want to fuel comparisons with what he sees as Alabama’s long gone past. “It’s going to take us a long time to outlive those stereotypes that are out there among people that Alabama is living in the ’50s and ’60s,” Bentley said.
The Republican sponsors of the immigration legislation promoted it as a jobs bill that would run off illegal immigrants and open up employment for legal residents. That was an easy political sale in a state suffering from nearly 10 percent unemployment. Even some Democrats voted for the law.
Since the law took effect, Alabama’s unemployment rate has dropped a half percentage point. Economists and state officials who compile the statistics say it’s too early to say whether to credit the immigration law.
But one of the sponsors, Republican Sen. Scott Beason of Gardendale, said neighboring states without a similar law haven’t seen the same drop. “There is nothing else to attribute it to,” he said.
If there has been any damage, he said it’s the fault of inaccurate portrayals in the news media. He said the media ought to be reporting: “This law establishes a safer, more secure environment for people to come here and invest their money.”
Republican House Speaker Mike Hubbard of Auburn said no industrial recruiters have complained to him about the law, and he will only support “tweaks” that make it more effective without weakening it.
Some Democratic Party leaders have called for repeal, but the party is now so weak in Alabama that the real debate is among Republicans.
The governor says the law is “very complicated” and needs to be simplified. He hasn’t recommended any specifics, but he says Alabama won’t abandon its goal of ensuring that only legal residents get jobs.
Strange, the attorney general, says his recommended changes “don’t weaken the law, they just make it easier to defend.”
Beason, however, said Strange’s proposals would weaken the law by repealing two sections that allow private citizens to sue state and local officials to enforce it. Beason said that’s needed because some officials are already saying they won’t follow the law.
Other Republicans say the law is causing unnecessary problems for legal residents. Senate Republican Whip Gerald Dial of Lineville said legislators hear complaints from people about digging out documents to prove their legal residency when renewing professional licenses and buying car tags.
“I made some mistakes in voting for this bill, and I want to step up and fix them,” he said.