BIRMINGHAM, Ala (Reuters) - Alabama Governor Robert Bentley said on Friday he would work to revise the state’s tough new immigration law following embarrassing incidents of foreign workers being detained because they were not carrying sufficient identification.
Bentley, House Speaker Mike Hubbard and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, said in a statement they do not plan to repeal or weaken the law, widely considered to be the toughest state immigration law in the nation.
“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.
The move came after two foreign workers in Alabama’s key 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 reexamination of the measure.
Both workers 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 upon enrollment. But it let other parts of the law stand, including the detention requirement.
The Justice Department has also sued Alabama, saying state lawmakers have no constitutional right to set immigration policy. The administration of President Barack Obama has said that the Alabama measure may violate civil rights laws.
Businesses in the state, especially farmers, have protested against the law, which they said has caused widespread desertions of Hispanic workers from the state, creating an employee shortage.
In response, some Alabama officials have suggested putting inmates in the state’s prisons to work in the fields to do the jobs once performed by immigrants.
In his statement Friday, Bentley offered few specifics about the proposed changes, only saying they would ensure “law enforcement officers have the clarity, the flexibility and the tools they need to enforce immigration laws.”
The essence of the current law, Bentley said, would not change as a result of the tweaks, which he said would be presented to the legislature early next year.
He said he believed Alabama could “have a thriving business climate that rivals any in the world while also shutting off the magnet drawing illegal immigrants to our state.”
But 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.”
“The message this is sending to the world is appalling,” said John Fitzgerald, the president of Saunders Yachtworks, Inc. in Orange Beach, Ala. and Board Member for the Alabama Gulf Coast Area Chamber of Commerce.
“It is one of the worst things the legislature has ever passed. They are dead wrong.”
Bauer at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said: “The question now is how they’ll move beyond rhetoric and truly restore the state’s reputation.”
Writing by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Greg McCune