On Nov. 16, a European businessman paying a visit to his company’s manufacturing plant near Tuscaloosa, Ala., was pulled over for driving a rental car without a tag. The police officer asked the man for his license, but the only paperwork he had with him was a German I.D. card. Anywhere else in the nation, the cop might have issued the man a citation. Not in Alabama, where a strict new law requires police to look into the immigration status of people detained for routine traffic violations. Because the man couldn’t prove he had the right to be in the U.S., he was arrested and hauled off to the police station.
As it turned out, the businessman was an executive with Mercedes-Benz, one of Alabama’s prized manufacturers. The Mercedes plant employs 3,400 people, and the company’s much-heralded decision in 1993 to build cars in the state encouraged Hyundai (HYMTF), Honda (HMC), and Toyota (TMC) to follow. Mercedes has downplayed the incident, calling it “unfortunate” and refusing further comment. Others aren’t so understanding. Word of the arrest spread quickly through the state and amplified a growing sentiment among many Alabama politicians, business owners, and citizens that the immigration law, intended to drive off undocumented workers and free up jobs for unemployed Alabamians, is too strict and is damaging the state’s reputation as a place to do business (Bloomberg Businessweek, Nov. 14).
“I was really embarrassed and overwhelmed,” says State Senator Gerald Dial. “Mercedes has done more to change the image of Alabama than just about anything else. We don’t want to upset those people.” Dial, a conservative Republican who voted for the law in June along with every other GOP state legislator but one, started having second thoughts soon after the statute went into effect in late September. Fearful of being deported, immigrants fled the state by the thousands, resulting in labor shortages.
The law has also caused confusion for American business owners and workers, who worry that they’ll inadvertently run afoul of a vague provision making it a felony for illegal immigrants to engage in any kind of “business transaction” with the state. “It’s being read so broadly that it’s creating an unnecessary burden that nobody ever intended,” says State Senator Bryan Taylor, a freshman Republican.
In the past week, at least six Alabama Republicans have come forward to say the state legislature should rewrite portions of HB56, as the immigration statute is known. “I’ve learned in life that if you make a mistake, you should be man enough to admit it,” says Dial. Even Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, perhaps the law’s most vocal supporter, told an audience of Alabama business leaders in early November that it is “very complicated” and should be simplified. Bentley declined to be interviewed.
State officials have been deluged with questions from business owners demanding to know whether the ban on transactions with illegal aliens means they must check for proof of citizenship every time a sale is made or deal is struck (it doesn’t). Employers complain they don’t have enough workers to pick crops and fill positions at food processing plants, since many legal immigrants left the state along with people without papers. Some politicians say civil rights groups are exaggerating the law’s reach to sow fear. Taylor, who lived in Honduras and speaks fluent Spanish, recently met with a group of Hispanic immigrants at a church to assure them that they are wanted in the state.
It’s not yet clear what a new and improved version of the law might look like. None of the politicians who have expressed doubts about HB56 wants it repealed. All want to preserve its central provisions: penalties for hiring illegal immigrants and the mandate for police to question the legal status of traffic violators. The politicians say their aim is to calm concerns about the law without watering it down.
Alabama officials hope changing the law will also allow them to change the subject. The state has worked hard to convince foreign companies that Alabama is a welcoming place to outsiders. “Thirty years after the events surrounding civil rights in Alabama we successfully recruited Mercedes-Benz, and the biggest hurdle we had to overcome … was the perception of racism here,” says former Governor Jim Folsom Jr., a Democrat. That’s still a touchy subject in Alabama, and recent stories about immigrants abandoning the state and cops cracking down on foreigners have brought unflattering comparisons to the past. “One of my concerns is that this bill opened up some old wounds that it didn’t need to open,” says Dial. “All this stuff from the ’50s and ’60s—Alabama is not like that anymore. The unfortunate thing about this whole bill is that it’s painted us what we’re not.”