Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said on Friday that he is working with lawmakers on a bill to revise the state's immigration law, after concerns were raised by law enforcement organizations, business leaders and faith- and humanitarian-based groups.
But Bentley, a Republican, said he has no intention of repealing or changing the essence of the law, which allows a variety of government workers to inquire about immigration status when they interact with residents of the state. The goal of the law is to drive undocumented immigrants out of the state, lawmakers said.
"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. "At the same time, we are in complete agreement that we will not compromise our ability to make sure that everyone who lives and works in our state does so legally. There is nothing unkind, unjust or unwarranted about asking everyone in Alabama to obey the law."
Bentley and the legislators who supported HB 56 have come under fire from a number of groups. The law went into effect on Sept. 29, and has since generated lawsuits from the Justice Department and human rights groups. It also led to the arrest of two foreign business executives, a German man from Mercedes Benz and a Japanese man from Honda, and there are reports of immigrants fleeing the state or pulling their children out of school.
State Sen. Scott Beason (R), who introduced HB 56, said he thinks those reports are largely exaggerated. He said the law has worked exactly as it was designed to do in the case of the two foreign executives, who were later released when they proved they were in the country legally.
He told HuffPost that he does not expect any major changes to the substance of the law. Beason said he spoke with the governor a few times about a month ago, and the two men agreed that the law could be clarified, but should retain its main purpose.
"He and myself both have said there are going to be some administrative changes or tweaks, but those are things designed to make the law work more effectively," he said. "It's not to change the spirit of the law, it's not to remove sections of the law; it's not to weaken the law, it's to make the law work better. Just like anything, things come out about how this exactly is supposed to be administered. We're going to clarify those things."
Beason said he opposes repealing any section of the law. Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, a Republican, recommended to lawmakers earlier this week that they repeal sections of the law, particularly two that were already enjoined by federal courts.
One of those provisions required schools to ask about immigration status when students registered. Opponents of the law said this could discourage undocumented parents from sending their children to school, whether the children were U.S. citizens or not; but Beason said it was only an effort to collect more data about how many undocumented immigrants live in the country.
Repealing that provision would weaken the law, he said.
At least one supporter of the bill has said publicly that he wants to see changes to the law because of the complaints he has heard from legal residents.
"I made some mistakes in voting for this bill, and I want to step up and fix them," Senate Republican Whip Gerald Dial said, according to an Associated Press report on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Democrats are pressing forward with attempts to repeal the law entirely. State Sen. Billy Beasley, a Democrat, said on Tuesday that he has support for a bill to repeal HB 56 from about 12 Democratic lawmakers, including some who voted for the original bill.
Hank Sanders, the top Democrat in the state Senate, asked the governor in a letter this week to repeal the law. He told HuffPost on Tuesday that he is urging lawmakers to consider the potential economic impact of the law.
"What I've tried to do is tell them that this law has become a symbol that's causing all kind of problems for Alabama, because it literally dredges up our long history of oppression" he said. "They really have to understand that sometimes it only takes a spark to set a whole forest fire when the situation is just right. Alabama's history makes these things far more combustible ... that's what I've been trying to impress upon people: that economic development could be set back for decades."