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Alabama Immigration Law Opponents File Complaint With Mexican Government, Say HB 56 Violates NAFTA

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A worker picks tomatoes in Alabama after the law took effect in September 2011 and many migrant workers left the state.
A worker picks tomatoes in Alabama after the law took effect in September 2011 and many migrant workers left the state.

WASHINGTON -- The Service Employees International Union continued its fight against Alabama immigration law HB 56 on Monday by filing a complaint with the Mexican Department of Labor, calling the law discriminatory and in violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The complaint is the latest in a series of efforts by the labor union against HB 56, which would allow many of the state's government employees, including police officers and school officials, to inquire about immigration status. Groups opposing the law have targeted businesses, asking them to call for repeal of the law because it could hurt their interests.

SEIU coupled with the Mexican National Association of Democratic Lawyers in issuing the complaint, which says HB 56 violates NAFTA's North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation. The law "contradicts key provisions of the [North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation] and has devastating consequences for migrant and immigrant workers in Alabama, as well as for all workers in the state," the group wrote in its complaint.

HB 56 is considered one of the most extreme anti-unauthorized immigration laws in the nation, modeled after Arizona's SB 1070. Both have been challenged by the U.S. Justice Department under the Obama administration. A federal court blocked some provisions of HB 56 in September 2011, but left others in place, such as requiring law enforcement officers to verify immigration status during stops and arrests if there was "reasonable suspicion" the person could be undocumented. Authors of HB 56 have said the law is meant to drive undocumented immigrants out of the state, and when it passed there was some indication that it drove some underground, if not away from Alabama.

Some business interests came out against the law, including those in the agriculture industry who said they struggled to find workers and had crops wither on the vine.

The SEIU is part of a coalition -- along with the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the United Auto Workers and the Southern Poverty Law Center -- that hopes to bring more businesses to the anti-HB 56 movement. The coalition is working to pressure foreign automobile manufacturers Hyundai, Honda and Daimler Automotive to publicly condemn the law. All three have plants in the state and could have an impact on Republican politicians who want to maintain good relations with business, the groups say.

So far, though, calls for the companies to speak out have not been successful, but a Daimler executive told coalition leaders at a shareholders' meeting in Berlin April 4 that they are closely following the law.

Alabama's Republican governor, Robert Bentley, has worked with GOP lawmakers in the state to respond to some of those concerns by announcing a new bill to amend parts of HB 56. Many of those changes impact larger businesses more than smaller ones, and other measures actually expand enforcement to allow for more requests for immigration documentation, not less.

HB 56 opponents came out against that bill as well and are urging Democratic lawmakers to vote against it.

Monday's filing over HB 56 and NAFTA was preceded by a separate complaint filed by the SEIU on April 2 to the United Nations' Labour Organization Committee, which deals with workers' rights.

The newer complaint will lead to an investigation by the Mexican labor department, according to a press release from the SEIU on Monday. One charge it will look into is whether the law, as the SEIU claims, would lead to racial discrimination, wage violations and workplace safety hazards.

"As officials begin investigating, we are confident they will see HB 56 for what it is: an immoral racial profiling law that had no grounds to begin with but which now threatens workers and economic stability," SEIU International Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo Medina said in a statement.

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