Alabama's governor said Friday he's working to clarify and simplify Alabama's tough immigration law, which critics say has damaged the state's international reputation and caused hardships for legal residents.
Republican Gov. Robert Bentley said he wants to eliminate unnecessary burdens on legal residents and businesses and protect faith-based services while ensuring that everyone working in Alabama is legal.
"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," the governor said in a statement.
Bentley didn't offer any specific changes being considered, but the law's opponents took his comments as an encouraging sign that they will go deeper than the "tweaks" he previously said were needed.
Aides to the governor and legislative leaders said details are being worked out. The governor's communications director, Rebekah Mason, said nothing will change regarding the employment of illegal immigrants, including requiring businesses to use the federal E-Verify system to check the legal status of new hires. "Anything beyond that is open for revision," she said.
The Legislature passed the law and Bentley signed it with the goal of scaring off illegal immigrants and opening up jobs for legal residents in a state suffering from nearly 10 percent unemployment. More than 30 groups and individuals challenged the law, but federal courts let several major provisions of the law take effect in late September.
Since then, two foreign workers for Alabama's prized Honda and Mercedes auto assembly plants have been stopped by police for not having the required documents to prove residency. The cases were later dropped.
But the incidents brought unwanted international attention to Alabama and prompted the Birmingham Business Alliance and others involved in industrial recruitment to call for changes to protect Alabama's image internationally.
Bentley said he and legislative leaders are addressing Alabama's image.
"We are reaching out internationally to reassure our global partners that the business climate in Alabama is as strong as ever, and our people and communities are as inviting and welcoming as we've always been," Bentley said.
Brian Hilson, president of the Birmingham Business Alliance, praised the officials for recognizing "the concerns of many, including the business community." He said the organization serving Alabama's largest metro area believes the law "taints the image and perception of Alabama" and places "uncertain and severe" penalties on businesses and individuals for violations.
One of the groups challenging Alabama's law in federal court said the governor's announcement represents a significant shift in the state's position, which had been that only "tweaks" would be made.
"It's encouraging that every state leader has now acknowledged that the law is incredibly flawed," said Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"The question now is how they'll move beyond rhetoric and truly restore the state's reputation. The devil will be in the details," he said.
United Steel Workers Vice President Fred Redmond said in a statement that the efforts by Bentley and Republican lawmakers to fix the law are "too little too late and not a viable solution." He said the law mirrors the fear and racism of the Jim Crow era.
"There is no question that our immigration system is broken," Redmond said in a statement. "But our answer as a nation cannot be to start criminalizing families. Alabama's solution has terrorized communities and separates families and we must stop it in its tracks."
When Bentley signed the immigration law, he called it the nation's toughest. His communications director said the goal now is to have the nation's most effective law. "Tough is open for debate," Mason said.
The law requires a check of legal residency when conducting everyday transactions such as obtaining a car license, enrolling a child in school, getting a job or renewing a business license.
Several parts of the law are on hold because of federal lawsuits, including a provision requiring schools to check the legal status of new students and making it a crime to transport an illegal immigrant.
Faith-based groups have been among the critics of the law, because they say it makes religious outreach and charity to immigrant communities illegal.
Bentley said he and the Republican leaders of the Legislature, House Speaker Mike Hubbard, and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, have been meeting with many groups, including the business, education, agriculture, and faith communities. Bentley said it became clear from those meetings that changes are needed.
The House speaker said, "The Legislature isn't going to repeal or weaken the law, but there may be ways we can make it work better."