Published in The Huffington Post, 12/09/2011
It was bound to happen.
For months, critics have said that Alabama’s anti-immigrant law HB56 was too strict, that it was discriminatory, that it would further damage the already stagnant state economy by depriving it of cheap labor essential for agricultural and service jobs.
HB 56 was signed into law by governor Robert Bentley in June, taking advantage of a GOP majority in both houses of the state legislature after the November, 2010, elections.
Major provisions went into effect on Nov. 15. All this time, state officials have fiercely defended their creation, touting it as a solution for the state’s dire economic straits and 10 percent unemployment rate.
They rejected any criticism. They arrested scores of protesters that for days gathered in Montgomery chanting “Undocumented, unafraid.”
They denied that the new law brought an increase in civil rights violations.
They welcomed the advance of similar laws in other states: Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas.
They were supported by national anti-immigration groups.
To no avail, organizations such as the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) fought against it: “Hispanic families in Alabama are facing heightened housing discrimination after the passage of this draconian law.”
Considered the toughest immigration law in the land, HB 56 allows police to request immigration documents from those they suspect to be undocumented, requires officials to collect information on the immigration status of public school students, mandates that undocumented immigrants carry “alien registration” cards at all times, and permits lawsuits if state residents believe that public officials are not adequately enforcing the law.
Then, last month, an Alabama police officer, adhering to the letter and spirit of HB56, arrested a German manager from the state’s prized Mercedes Benz plant for failing to produce immigration documentation.
Mercedes-Benz has a large plant near Tuscaloosa. “The automaker’s decision to open a factory in Alabama in 1993 was considered a major coup for the state’s economic development efforts and launched a trend of other foreign automakers and suppliers who opened major factories in the state, including Honda, Toyota and Hyundai,” according to the AP.
By late November, a Honda executive was stopped by police and charged with not have a state driver’s license. The executive had a Japanese passport and an international driver’s license.
So, this time, it was different. Again, the officers were just enforcing HB56. But for the Alabama politicians, concerned about the unwanted international attention generated by the cases, the officers went too far.
Instead of targeting poor, undocumented Mexicans, the officers applied the law on well-heeled foreign businessmen.
Suddenly, their headline-grabbing anti-immigration law wasn’t all that appealing. It was anti-business.
Suddenly, Alabama officials started to talk about making changes and adjustments.
“Alabama GOP leaders have 2nd thoughts on immigration” said the headline on an AP story in Bloomberg Business Week on Friday.
The only problem was that these second thoughts have nothing to do immigration but everything to do with race, image, business, investments.
“Gov. Robert Bentley, who signed the law, said he’s contacting foreign executives to tell them they and their companies are still welcome in Alabama,” the AP reported.
“We are not anti-foreign companies. We are very pro-foreign companies,” he said, adding that the law was “very complicated,” according to the AP.
In addition, state Attorney General Luther Strange in a letter “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,” the AP reported.
“The private letter… represents the first time the attorney general has expressed concerns since he started defending the law against a federal court challenge filed by about 30 organizations and individuals,” the AP reported Tuesday.
Of course, Strange is defending the law in court, and a federal court had already suspended the application of both clauses.
On top of that, the story in Bloomberg Business Week reported, “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.
Undoubtedly, the change of heart was prompted by a business group, the Birmingham Business Alliance, whose chairman, James McManus, is also CEO of Energen Corporation, which is based in that city and “has approximately 900 million barrels of oil-equivalent proved, probable, and possible reserves.”
Hispanic organizations such as LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) had asked “for auto industry and related supply companies to consider the punitive provisions of HB 56 before doing business in Alabama.”
LULAC’s document lists the companies that have recently expanded or plan to expand operations in Alabama.
But Albama’s leaders didn’t care until it hit them that their beautiful state was far ahead in the unofficial competition for the strangest pariah state in the country. They are measured by their treatment of immigration, which is a national, federal policy.
Their law was passed in a heartbeat, without thinking it through or considering its consequences. They rode high on a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment and emotion against people they refer to simply as “illegals.”
Now that they’re having “second thoughts,” they will try to amend the law, so it keeps targeting immigrant Latino families but excuses German and Japanese businessmen.
They may fail again.