Why Republicans are doing an about-face on tough Alabama immigration law

The tough Alabama anti-illegal immigration law has created a whirlwind of 'unintended consequences' that key Republicans now vow to fix. Bottom line, says Sen. Gerald Dial, 'We're not hateful and mean.'

By , Staff writer

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    Protestors sit in the street outside the Alabama Statehouse during a demonstration against Alabama's immigration law in Montgomery, Ala., Tuesday. Federal courts have blocked parts of the Republican-backed law from taking effect, but both supporters and critics still call it the nation's toughest state law against illegal immigration.
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Acknowledging a growing list of unintended consequences stemming from the implementation of the nation's toughest anti-illegal immigration law, key Alabama Republicans are gathering ideas for how to tweak the legislation to make it less onerous on Alabamans and less dehumanizing for illegal immigrants.

News of the about-face comes as 13 protesters, some of them illegal immigrants risking deportation, were arrested in Montgomery on Tuesday in an attempt to bring attention to a law that has sparked fear and trepidation among some Hispanic immigrants, even as it's been applauded by national groups working for tougher immigration enforcement.

The architect of the law, Sen. Scott Beason, once said the state needed to "empty the clip" on illegal immigration in order to reduce state expenditures and return jobs to legal US citizens. But as the full impact of HB 56 sinks in, Republican leaders in the Senate are realizing the law – a centerpiece in the national immigration debate – needs a major overhaul.

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The ultimate unintended consequence of HB56, says one key Republican, is that it opens Alabama up for criticism that it's reverting to the kind of overt racism that marked the state's response to the civil rights movement in the 1960s. 

"There are things in the law we just didn't see," says Sen. Gerald Dial (R), of Lineville, who is part of a team of lawmakers working on a do-over of HB56. "Every time I see a major news clip of dogs attacking protesters in Birmingham [from the civil rights era], even though we're way beyond that, this bill drags us back into that hole. It's opened up a window that we didn't need. I'm a big enough guy to say I made a mistake and that I'll do everything I can do to correct it."

Even as it faces a federal lawsuit brought by the US Justice Department and national civil liberties groups, the bulk of HB 56 is currently in effect, including provisions that allow police to check papers of suspected illegal immigrants and even requirements that could mean utility customers would have to provide proof of residency. 

But the economic effects of the law have begun to pile up as many immigrants have left the state, fearing deportation – and have taken their purchasing power with them. Prof. Samuel Addy at the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama recently predicted that HB 56 will reduce the Alabama economy by $40 million as income and spending by both illegal and legal Hispanic immigrants will decline.

What's more, employers face troves of fresh paperwork and licensing requirements to comply with the law that they say will potentially hurt business.

Indeed, the driving force behind revising the law, Republicans say, is its impact on legal Alabamians.

Senator Dial says it's primarily complaints from constituents – farmers, doctors, lawyers, and contractors among them – that are driving him to alter the law by Christmas. Among the bill's requirements that Dial wants to change:

  • A requirement that mandates proof of legal residence or citizenship for every transaction with the state and local government.
  • Requirements that force, for example, pharmacists to check the residency status of specific suppliers, which promises to create an avalanche of new paperwork.
  • Requiring that "officers of the court" report illegal immigrants, which means that lawyers may have to break confidentiality agreements with their clients.
  • Dial says he wants to add a "good samaritan" clause so people who help illegal immigrants out of charity – such as at a soup kitchen – aren't in danger of being arrested for a felony.
  • He also wants to take out a provision where schools check the immigration status of new students, the fount of much of the criticism of the law.

"Everybody's for a strong immigration law, and we're not looking at anything that would foster illegals or provide extra benefits … but we need to correct unintended consequences causing a lot of undue heartaches and extra work for our citizens," he says.

While Dial has been working for several months on the tweaks, the decision by a Senate assignment committee this week to remove Mr. Beason, the tough-talking architect of the law, from chair of the powerful Senate Rules Committee and replace him with Sen. Jabo Waggoner of Vestavia Hills, signaled Republicans' intent to pave the way for changes in the law. "We are looking at different fixes," Mr. Waggoner told the Birmingham News.

Moreover, both Gov. Robert Bentley and Beason, who earlier had said they'd oppose changes to the law, have hinted in recent weeks that they will support tweaking it.

"We're loving, caring, compassionate people in Alabama, not hateful and mean as we've been painted by this bill," Dial says. "I want to remove some of that stigma."

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