Business and economic development leaders in Alabama have joined calls for reform of the state’s immigration law after a Tuscaloosa police officer arrested a Mercedes-Benz manager because he did not have his driver’s license with him. The arrest of a German executive from the company that launched Alabama’s thriving auto industry and is poised to expand its sizeable operations in Tuscaloosa County has prompted some lawmakers to acknowledge that the law has had “unintended consequences” and needs reform.
Business leaders like David Bronner, chief executive of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, are concerned that the immigration law is revealing Alabama to be an unwelcoming place for foreign investors. “Sometimes we forget in Alabama that when we label a group as a problem and when we paint the brush so broadly, we’ve included most of the world,” Mr. Bronner told reporters. “We’ve just used a hammer and we’ve hit ourselves over the head with it.”
Mr. Bronner said that the law gives the impression that Alabama officials “don’t like foreigners, period,” and other observers say it recalls the state’s intolerant civil rights history.
The editorial board of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called on Mercedez-Benz to leave Alabama for a more tolerant venue, writing in an open letter after the manager’s arrest: “How inhospitable. Carpetbaggers never have been treated very kindly in the South, though we would have thought exceptions would have been made for those with SUV factories in their carpetbags.”
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley called it “an insult to the Civil Rights Movement” to compare the immigration law to the evils of segregation. “We are still not going to change the fact that you cannot hire people who are not legal in this country to work for you,” he told business people, elected officials, and local leaders at a Birmingham Business Alliance event prior to the Mercedes arrest. “If you think y’all will get your workers back, forget it. It’s not going to happen.”
Brian Hilson, chief executive of the Birmingham Business Alliance, said the arrest raises concerns that “[t]he perception of the law, as opposed to the substance of the law, is a potential issue for us in economic development.”
Mike Randle, publisher of Birmingham-based Southern Business & Development, an economic development trade magazine, told the Birmingham News that the arrest of the Mercedes manager is an embarrassing development. “We get foreign visitors all the time. This is going to happen again, there’s no question. If it does, I can’t imagine what the impact will be,” he said.
This week, a Japanese man temporarily working at Honda’s car factory in east Alabama was stopped at a roadblock and arrested under the immigration law.