Op-Ed, 595 words

Alabama’s Immigration Aftershock

Raul A. Reyes

Ever since Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley signed the nation’s strictest immigration measure into law, he’s faced criticism from religious leaders and immigrant advocates.

Now Bentley himself admits that the Republican-passed HB 56 needs to be retooled. “Changes are needed to ensure that Alabama has not only the nation’s most effective law,” he recently said, “but one that is fair and just, promotes economic growth, preserves jobs for those in Alabama legally, and can be enforced effectively and without prejudice.”

In other words, the governor, along with many other Republican officials and politicians in his state, is having second thoughts about HB 56. Although a federal court has blocked some parts of the law, like a requirement that school officials check the immigration status of students, most of its provisions remain in effect. HB 56 makes it a crime for any undocumented resident to conduct business with the state or local government, and requires police to stop anyone who “appears” to be illegal.

Putting aside my concerns about possible civil rights violations, I see little evidence that the law has achieved its goal of creating jobs and promoting growth. Instead, HB 56 has resulted in what one state Republican leader termed “unintended consequences.” Let’s review the economic impact of this law on Alabama so far.

HB 56 has been a disaster for agriculture, Alabama’s No. 1 industry. Last month, The Washington Post described Alabama farmers as “in revolt” over the law. They are facing a labor crisis because migrant workers have fled the state. Farmers say they have tried to attract American workers, without success. The situation is so dire that Alabama officials are considering using work-release prisoners to fill the jobs once held by immigrants.

HB 56 has harmed Alabama’s reputation as a good place to do business. State officials were embarrassed on November 16 when a German Mercedes-Benz executive was arrested for driving without proper identification. Two weeks later, a Japanese Honda employee was ticketed amid much negative publicity. These incidents make it harder for Alabama to compete with other states to attract multinational corporations and jobs. Sheldon Day, the mayor of Thomasville, AL, says that foreign business inquiries had fallen since the law passed.

“I know the immigration issue is being used against us,” he told the Mobile Press-Register. Worse, the harsh provisions of HB 56 remind people of Alabama’s unfortunate history of racial intolerance.

Alabama’s law has also negatively affected the daily lives of legal residents. Under HB 56, anyone who applies for or renews a state license — including lawyers, hairdressers, nurses, and architects — is required to show proof of citizenship. Ditto for people getting car tags or even a license for their dog. This has resulted in long lines at courthouses and city halls, which equals lost hours of productivity and confusing red tape. How ironic, considering that Republicans often campaign against “big government” and burdensome regulations.

True, HB 56 has resulted in undocumented workers and their families leaving Alabama. Yet Bloomberg News says that the post-tornado reconstruction of Tuscaloosa has been slow because Latino construction workers vanished after the law passed. Stores and restaurants catering to Latinos have closed, depriving the state of tax revenue. Health officials have seen a drop in Hispanic patients at county clinics, putting communities at greater risk of communicable diseases and illness.

Are these social costs really worth driving undocumented workers and their familiesaway?

HB 56 was designed to make life hard for the state’s undocumented population. Yet tweaking its provisions will not undo the harm done to the state’s economy and image. Repealing this misguided law is the only sensible solution; Alabama can’t afford anything less.

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and columnist in New York City.
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