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Wednesday, December 7, 2011 - 7:49am

Alabama Immigration Law in Spotlight

Alabama's attorney general has become the highest ranking Republican official to suggest throwing out parts of his state's tough new immigration law, as he recommended that lawmakers repeal some portions of the statute that have been put on hold by federal courts and clarify some others.

In a letter to legislative leaders, Attorney General Luther Strange said the proposed changes would make the law easier to defend in court and "remove burdens on law-abiding citizens."

The private letter, acquired by The Associated Press, represents the first time the attorney general has expressed concerns since he started defending the law against a federal court challenge filed by about 30 organizations and individuals.

In reaction to his letter, legislative leaders disclosed they are working with business leaders on possible changes to keep Alabama business-friendly.

Todd Stacy, a spokesmen for House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said, "Lawmakers are right now working with industry leaders to see what updates might be necessary to maintaining what is arguably the most business-friendly environment anywhere in America."

Strange recommended repealing a section that makes it a crime for an illegal immigrant to fail to carry registration documents. That section has been put on hold temporarily by a federal court. Strange said it "adds little in terms of enforcement" because federal law already makes it a crime and repealing it would allow police "to focus on more important aspects of the law."

He also suggested repealing the requirement that public schools collect information on the immigration status of students. That section is also on hold.

The law is considered by both opponents and supporters as the toughest in the U.S. against illegal immigrants.

Georgia also has its own state immigration law, and there's been significant fallout from its implementation, including farm labor shortages. But the law doesn't include these two provisions in Alabama's statute that the attorney general is recommending legislators repeal.

In June, a federal court has blocked two provisions in Georgia's law: one would have allowed the police to check the immigration status of some criminal suspects, and the other would have made it a crime to knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants. The rest of the law went into effect on July 1; some provisions will be phased in starting in January, when many businesses will have to check their employees; immigration status.

Georgia's attorney general, Sam Olens, supports the law and has repeatedly said he will rigorously defend it in court.

Strange said his recommendations were based only on the legal challenge to the law and on efforts to make the law clearer, but did not address policy decisions by the Legislature. "The legislative leadership asked for our opinion and we provided it," he said in an e-mail.

Strange said the cost of gathering the school data and the diversion of resources to do that far outweigh the need to gather the data for use in litigation.

The Alabama Legislature passed the law to scare off illegal immigrants and open up jobs for legal residents in a state suffering from more than 9 percent unemployment. The law took effect in late September, except for provisions put on hold temporarily by federal courts.

Despite the jobs goal, a leading business organization in Alabama's largest urban area called for revisions Tuesday, saying it was concerned that the law taints Alabama's image around the world. The Birmingham Business Alliance said complying with the law is a burden for businesses and local governments.

"Revisions to our current law are needed to ensure that momentum remains strong in our competitive economic development efforts," said James T. McManus, chairman of the alliance and CEO of Energen Corp.

The group did not offer specific changes. The alliance voiced its opinion one day after Republican Gov. Robert Bentley said he is concerned the law might be affecting industrial recruitment. Bentley also said Monday the law needs simplifying, but it shouldn't be repealed.

An opponent of the law, Democratic Sen. Billy Beasley of Clayton, said revisions are not enough, and he will push ahead with legislation to repeal it in the legislative session starting Feb. 7.

"I don't feel that the senators who voted for it realized the fallout there would be and the effect of the law," he told reporters Tuesday.

Also Tuesday, state agriculture officials met with farmers in southwest Alabama to discuss their concerns that the law has driven off the laborers they will need to plant their crops in the spring. Officials discussed the possibility of using prison inmates to fill any farm labor shortages.

One of the attorneys challenging the law, Karen Tumlin of the Immigration Law Center, said officials are beginning to see the "devastating" impact the law is having on the state.


Jeanne Bonner