Since it became law in September, the provisions of Alabama’s anti-illegal immigrant law that withstood legal challenge have been the subject of loud protests, civil disobedience and, as of last week, acknowledgement from some — but not all — supporters in the Legislature and the governor’s office that the measure needs tweaking. Some of this could have been expected, and it was. Other parts — long lines to purchase state-issued licenses or complaints from farmers, business owners and local governments — appear to have not been fully considered in the rush to pass a law acknowledged to be even tougher than the one created in Arizona.
The big problems, according to local governments, activist opponents and lawmakers friendly to the law who spoke out last week, are (a.) coherence — what is precisely required in parts of the anti-immigrant law is vague and (b.) perception — some effects of the law are painting an ugly stereotype of the state.
One of the bill’s supporters — state Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville — addressed the unintended consequences last week. “There are things in the law we just didn’t see,” Dial told The Christian Science Monitor. “Every time I see a major news clip of dogs attacking protesters in Birmingham [from the civil rights era], even though we’re way beyond that, this bill drags us back into that hole. It’s opened up a window that we didn’t need. I’m a big-enough guy to say I made a mistake and that I’ll do everything I can do to correct it.”
One provision of HB56 — the measure’s name in the House of Representatives — requires Alabamians to provide evidence of citizenship to acquire various state licenses. One quirk fails to list military ID as a valid form of identification to purchase car tags. Then, there are the lines, long lines in front of already short-staffed courthouses and state offices. Those lines grow even longer as the process of proving U.S. citizenship requires more time to purchase an automobile tag, for instance, something Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, called “clearly crazy and causing a lot of confusion for people who just moved into the state.”
“Obviously that was never intended to not be allowed,” House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said of the military ID issue.
On the perception side, David Bronner, chairman and CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama and the man Time magazine once called “[a]n unabashed cheerleader for Alabama,” recently suggested the law might scare away foreign-based businesses from the state. “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,” Bronner told The Birmingham News. “Alabama needs growth, and we need people to maintain growth.”
“The longer the bill has been out, the more unintended consequences we have found,” Slade Blackwell, R-Birmingham, surmised. “All of us realize we need to change it.”
What these lawmakers are telling us is that a bill that passed by overwhelming margins in the state Senate and House a mere six months ago needs to go back into the garage for an overhaul when the Legislature meets in 2012. On the positive side, we might salute these supporters who are calling for fixes. It’s a very human tendency to retreat into the bunker in cases like this. Instead, some lawmakers — perhaps with an earful of complaints from constituents — concede corrections are needed.
On the other side, both the law’s supporters and detractors can wonder if the fuller implications of HB56 were thoughtfully considered before it was approved and signed by the governor. A well-functioning democracy requires such careful deliberation. As research from the Kettering Foundation points out, it’s folly to believe that a law — any important law — will be written free of consequences. What’s important is weighing the choices so that we can better anticipate what happens when a bill becomes a law.
At this point, Alabama — both its residents and its politicians — has entered a learning phase, a spot where everyone can assess how we got where we are and where we go next, for the immigration law and any other important decision facing the state.
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.