Alabama’s Immigration Bill

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The Alabama House is set to take up bill today aimed at curbing illegal immigration. It’s patterned after a similar law passed last year in Arizona and would punish individuals in Alabama without documentation for trespassing. That could mean jail, fines or being turned over to federal immigration authorities. WBHM’s Andrew Yeager talks to some in the business community who are worried about what an Arizona-style law might mean for Alabama.

Here at a brick building, with green trimmed windows, not far from the railroad tracks in central Bessemer, is a small piece of Alabama’s automotive industry.

Fernando Valentin is President and C.E.O of the Trinity Design Group. His business helps manage manufacturing waste for clients such as Honda and Mercedes-Benz. Trinity has about 35 employees, just under a third are Latino. Valentin’s worried about the immigration bill because if a business uses Hispanic labor, even documented or American citizens…

“What’s going to happen is we might have a situation where our Latino employees, which again are perfectly fine, might have relative which are not.”

Valentin says the Latino community is very tight.

“If that son or parent gets deported, that entire family is probably going to leave.”

Valentin say businesses would face costs to replace those workers. The state reports that Alabama’s non-farm workforce is just 2.6% Hispanic. But Valentin estimates a quarter of those working for auto suppliers are Latino.

“That ripple effect, that domino effect is going to affect everyone.”

“You know, there are gonna be some difficult situations.”

Republican State Representative Micky Hammon is sponsoring the bill.

“We can’t ignore this situation, just because we can name a few instances that will be hardships on people.”

Hammon says the federal government is not doing its job in enforcing immigration law. So the bill requires Alabama employers to use the government’s e-verify system to check the immigration status of new hires. The proposal also allows local law enforcement to check the immigration status of a person who has already been stopped, detained or arrested for another infraction. The check’s allowed if, in the words of bill, “reasonable suspicion” exists that the person is an “unauthorized alien.” Critics charge that’s a invitation to racial profiling. Not so says Hammon.

“This legislation, this specifically prohibits profiling and any type of discrimination.”

Hammon says reasonable suspicion could mean an unwillingness to show an ID. He adds federal and state authorities will train local law enforcement and most of the time the immigration status of a person could be determined on the spot.

“So this will be handled according to the law and we will not allow discrimination and we will not be having unnecessary detainment of people that are citizens.”

But critics worry about another scenario that reaches into the corporate suite. Hernan Prado does interpretation work for BBVA Compass, the Birmingham-based bank owned by a Spanish company. He says executives from Madrid come to Alabama and bring their families.

“”If I am at my desk and I receive a call from my wife or somebody saying that my mother is in jail, how am I going to feel? And wonder what will be my report at the next global meeting? That my mother was detained in Birmingham and I would like to go back to Madrid and never come back here.”

Prado says the immigration bill has caught bank executives’ attention.

A spokesman for BBVA Compass did not return calls. Neither did Honda. Mercedes-Benz declined to comment. And while the lobbying group the Business Council of Alabama didn’t comment, its web site simply lists the immigration bill as one to watch, taking no position either way.

The relative silence from traditional business does not surprise Larron Harper. He’s a business professor at Samford University and a naturalized U.S. citizen. Harper says the illegal immigration issue is charged. Plus, businesses are frustrated by a lack of clear action from Washington.

“Although the laws have been in place since 1986, there were very few cases of prosecutions when companies were clearly breaking the law and employing undocumented workers.”

The left-leaning Center for American Progress issued a report last fall that found a tourism boycott sparked by Arizona’s immigration law cost that state $141 million in business activity. Arizona’s governor disputes that claim. The director of Alabama’s Development Office says Alabama’s bill won’t affect efforts to attract companies to invest here.

But opponents of the bill disagree. They rallied last month in front of the Alabama State House holding signs reading “Alabama can’t afford to be Arizona” and “What does reasonably suspicious look like?”

Speakers largely made appeals based on civil and human rights, mentioning Birmingham’s fire hoses, Bull Connor and poll taxes. The concerns of workforce stability may be far less dramatic than those images from Alabama history. But those worries are just as real for some business watching this immigration bill.

Andrew Yeager

Andrew Yeager