Alabama's law, pushed through by a new Republican super-majority in the state Legislature, is being challenged in federal court by the Justice Department, about 30 civil rights organizations and some prominent church leaders. Judges have blocked some provisions, but sections still stand that allow police to check a person's immigration status during traffic stops and make it a felony for illegal immigrants to conduct basic state business, like getting a driver's license.
State Rep. Alvin Holmes, the senior black member of the Legislature, said Republicans can't undo the voting rights gains of Democratic-leaning blacks, so they are going after brown-skinned people in hopes they won't gain a voting foothold. "They feel if these Hispanics come in and get registered to vote, they will team up with black voters to take over Alabama politics," he said.
Proponents say the law had nothing to with race. They say it was the result of frustration with the federal government's inaction and an effort to open up jobs for the nearly 10 percent of legal state residents out of work.
"There are people who try to make racism a cottage industry and profit off it, but I would put the harmony in Alabama up against any place in the country," said Republican Sen. Scott Beason, one of the law's sponsors.
Beason, the powerful chairman of the state Senate's Rules Committee, has prompted some of the comparisons with the civil rights era by telling one group that the Legislature needed to "empty the clip" on the immigration issue. And in tapes played during the federal trial of several lawmakers and lobbyists accused of buying and selling votes on gambling legislation, he referred to customers of a dog track in a predominantly black county as "aborigines."
Opponents of the law have fueled the comparisons by holding rallies at historic civil rights sites and drawing support from civil rights organizations.
No one in the Alabama Legislature was talking about immigration laws a decade ago because the Hispanic population was so small. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates the number of illegal immigrants in Alabama has grown from 25,000 in 2000 to 120,000 in 2010 — a nearly fivefold increase — though it's only a fraction of the 11 million or so estimated in the country.
That rapid rise drew complaints from residents who blamed Hispanics for knocking them out of jobs by working for cheaper wages and no benefits.
"They were coming in here like thieves in the night and taking our jobs and tax revenue," said Republican Rep. Micky Hammon, who also sponsored the new law.
To be sure, construction businesses and farms say Hispanic workers they have relied upon have fled the state. So far, they haven't been able to find legal residents willing to take on what is usually backbreaking work.
The governor said lawmakers in other states are eyeing Alabama's law as a blueprint for their own, but some fear that notoriety could come at a steep price: The state's image as an international automotive hub.
In 1993, a few months after state officials quit flying the secessionist Confederate Civil War battle flag on the Capitol dome, Mercedes selected Alabama for an assembly plant. Then came Honda, Toyota and Hyundai, and many auto suppliers.
The CEO of the state pension system, David Bronner, helped recruit those plants and now fears Alabama has hurt its ability to recruit.
"You are giving the image, whether it's valid or not, that you don't like foreigners, period," he said, adding that state leaders frequently seize on bad publicity to knock other states out of competition for new jobs.
That bad publicity has made its way to Hillsboro, Wisconsin, where information technology businessman Charles Manser and 11 of his buddies have canceled a 10-day golfing vacation to Alabama.
Manser said one friend was born in Puerto Rico and another is a British citizen. They were concerned about being hassled over their legal status.
"Whether it's legitimate or not, that's the message seen by people who might come to Alabama," he said.
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