Second Foreign Auto Worker Hassled: Will Alabama Immigration Law Cost State?

Could neighboring states lure away businesses that employ foreigners?

Dec. 3, 2011— -- Citing the embarrassing arrest of a foreign auto worker under Alabama's new immigration law, a Missouri newspaper recently extended an open invitation to companies like Mercedes to leave Alabama for more hospitable climes.

"Our state has many advantages over Alabama," writes the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's editorial board. "We are the Show-Me State, not the 'Show me your papers' state."

A right-to-work state, Alabama has been one of the most successful states in the South in attracting foreign auto companies, including Mercedes, Honda and Hyundai, making it the fifth largest car-making state.

But as the Missouri appeal indicates, that economic development – built in part on the state's success in erasing lingering perceptions of intolerance left over from the civil rights era – may now face some new hurdles from the immigration law passed in the summer and currently under review in federal court.

Two weeks after a German auto executive, Detlev Hager, was arrested when he couldn't immediately produce his driver's license during a traffic stop, a Japanese worker at an Alabama Honda plant this week was ticketed (though not arrested) under the new law.

Ron Scott, director of the Economic Development Association of Alabama, tells the Associated Press that, to his knowledge, current recruitment efforts haven't been hurt by news of foreign workers getting caught up in the law's net.

But other state officials say the incidents exemplify the law's unintended consequences.

"It's a huge problem, because people don't understand how much we rely upon different cultures of the world to maintain our growth here in Alabama," David Bronner, chairman and CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, recently told The Birmingham News.

Partly in response to such concerns, state Republicans have begun an effort to tweak the law, including potentially adding a "good Samaritan clause" that would allow Alabamans to extend charity to illegal workers without fearing retribution from the state. But changing the core of the law – the requirement that police detain people who can't prove legal residency – isn't currently on the table, legislators say.

"We know that Republican legislators will say that not all foreigners are targeted by this law, only those here illegally," writes the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper in an editorial Wednesday headlined "Putting out the 'not welcome' sign." "But try telling that to the Mercedes executive or the Honda employee detained by police."

At the very least, the incidents have given other states some new ammunition with which to compete with Alabama on economic development.

"Carpetbaggers never have been treated very kindly in the South, though we would have thought exceptions would have been made for those with SUV factories in their carpetbags," jabs the Post-Dispatch's editorial board.