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Alabama business opposed immigration law, but some say not loudly enough

MahurinImmigration_Thumb_1840.jpg
MahurinImmigration_Thumb_1840.jpg

Alabama’s new immigration law has been called the most far-reaching of the state-level efforts at cracking down on undocumented immigrants. But of all the Alabama interest groups that the law affects, none has greater influence on the Republican Party-controlled Legislature than business groups, who are some of the biggest contributors to GOP state lawmakers’ election campaigns.

Opponents of the bill say that had business been more outspoken with their disapproval of the bill, it would never have passed: “There was no opposition from people who traditionally support Republicans, if you know what I mean,” says Rep. Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa). “If the business community was against the bill in its present form, it wouldn’t have passed.”

Business groups in Alabama say they worked with legislators in an effort to prevent some of the harsher measures in the new state immigration bill from being implemented.

“We met with the sponsors of the legislation numerous times,” says Russell Davis of the Home Builders Association of Alabama. Davis says that his group found the law’s potential impact on its members’ workforce “troubling.”

“We have not been and never have been an advocate for people being here illegally,” says Davis. “What we want is for people who are here legally to live and prosper.”

England thinks business groups were afraid of appearing to be against reform, but were also motivated by Republican partisanship and ideology of their own. “Public opinion was in favor of some sort of immigration reform,” he says.

Shay Farley, legal director of Alabama Appleseed, agrees that opponents of the bill who are traditionally allied with Republicans avoided publicizing their discomfort with the bill. “It’s always interesting who’s loud and proud and who’s working behind the scenes,” she says.

As The American Independent reported in June, the rapid process by which the ambitious bill expanded and changed in the last few days before the final version was passed in both chambers meant that many stakeholders, including businesses and employers throughout the state, were unaware of exactly how the bill would affect them by the time the governor signed it. Representatives for business associations that TAI spoke to said while their organizations were unhappy with potentially negative effects the law could have on their workforce, they are now primarily concerned with teaching their members about the new law and lobbying for changes in future legislative sessions.

Jay Reed, president of Alabama Associated Builders and Contractors and co-chair of Alabama Employers for Immigration Reform (ALEIR), says, “HB56 passed, it is now law. While some groups are challenging the law through the court system, we feel that a better approach is to meet with employers throughout the state and educate them about the law.”

Reed says that ALEIR, which lobbies on behalf of Alabama businesses interested in immigration policy, “was very visible during the legislative session.”

But Rep. England says that business advocates were unwilling to voice full-throated opposition to the law in public, even as they privately told legislators to vote against the bill, out of fear of appearing to be against state-level immigration enforcement efforts, which are strongly supported by the Alabama public. “In hallways we’d hear one thing but in private it would be a different conversation,” England says.

“I think our position has been that we would agree that immigration reform is best handled at the federal level,” says Jeff Helms, a spokesperson for the Alabama Farmers Federation, which was involved in the lobbying process through ALEIR. One of the Farmers Federation’s biggest concerns was the bill’s requirement that all businesses use E-Verify, the federal electronic system for verifying legal status of employees, as opposed to a non-electronic system that older and less technologically-savvy farmers could use.

Ultimately, however, business groups’ influence didn’t prevent almost all Republicans from voting in favor of the immigration bill. In the state Senate, only one Republican, restaurant owner Paul Sanford, voted against the bill in its final form.

The immigration section of Sanford’s website says that while he supports strong enforcement of immigration laws, “Local and state candidates who use the immigration issue are merely grandstanding on a subject they know little about.”

According to FollowTheMoney.org, the Business Council of Alabama, the Alabama Farmers Federation and the Alabama Association of Realtors each contributed more money to Sanford’s candidacy than they did to any other successful candidate for the Legislature in 2010.

Sanford had not responded to The American Independent’s request for comment as of publish time.

Reed says that advocacy on the immigration laws from business groups will continue in future sessions of the Legislature. “A main concern now is workers here legally are leaving becomes of the law’s perceived insensitivity towards Hispanics,” he says.

Those concerns are already being justified, says the Farmers Federation’s Jeff Helms. “We’re hearing anecdotal examples of workers who are documented, but may have a relative who is undocumented, that are leaving Alabama,” he says.

Helms adds that farmers’ attempts to fill the jobs worked by immigrants are failing. “We have talked to farmers who have said, ‘I’ve tried to hire locals but I can’t hire them, people will work for one or two days and then they won’t come back.’”

Reed says that his organization will work with legislators in future sessions to fill the emerging void in the workforce. “I’m optimistic that that’s going to be fixed in the next session.”

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