BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - Alabama’s governor said on Friday he would work to revise the state’s tough new immigration law following embarrassing incidents where foreign workers were detained because they were not carrying sufficient identification.
Republican Governor Robert Bentley said in a statement with House Speaker Mike Hubbard and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh that they did not plan to repeal or weaken the law, widely considered the toughest of its kind in the nation.
Several U.S. states have passed laws cracking down on illegal immigrants, charging that President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress have failed to act on the issue.
“We recognize that changes are needed to ensure that Alabama has not only the nation’s most effective law, 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,” Bentley said in the statement.
Critics of the law said minor revisions would not be enough to salvage a law that Mary Bauer, the legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, called “incredibly flawed.”
Bentley’s move came after two foreign employees in Alabama’s important auto industry were detained by police in recent weeks for failing to produce proof of legal residency, generating negative publicity for the state and prompting calls for a re-examination of the law.
The workers - a German Mercedes-Benz executive and a Japanese employee at Honda -- were released without charges after the governor’s office intervened on their behalf.
“This has everything to do with those auto workers,” said Tommy Eden, an immigration lawyer in Auburn, Alabama.
“A lot of political contributors to the GOP want this straightened out so it won’t scare business away.”
The Alabama law, which passed by large margins in both chambers of the Republican-led Legislature earlier this year, requires police to detain people they suspect of being in the United States illegally if they cannot produce proper documentation when stopped for any reason.
A U.S. appeals court last month blocked Alabama from enforcing part of the new law, including a controversial provision that permits the state to require public schools to determine the legal residency of children on enrollment. But it let other parts of the law stand, including the detention requirement.
Businesses in the state, especially farmers, have protested the law, saying it had caused widespread departures of Hispanic workers from the state, creating an employee shortage.
In response, some Alabama officials have suggested putting state prison inmates to work in the fields to do the jobs once performed by immigrants.
In his statement, Bentley offered few specifics about the proposed changes, saying only they would ensure “law enforcement officers have the clarity, the flexibility and the tools they need to enforce immigration laws.”
But John Fitzgerald, president of Saunders Yachtworks in Orange Beach, Alabama, and a board member for the Alabama Gulf Coast Area Chamber of Commerce, said: ”The message this is sending to the world is appalling.
“It is one of the worst things the Legislature has ever passed. They are dead wrong.”
The U.S. Justice Department has sued the state, saying the law represents an impermissible effort by state lawmakers to set immigration policy. The department’s civil rights division has said the measure may also violate a number of federal civil rights laws.
Reporting by Verna Gates; Writing by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Greg McCune and Peter Cooney