If the threat to Alabama’s $5.5 billion agricultural industry from its immigration law wasn’t enough, now it appears it might start scaring away other industries too.
That threat has been highlighted by news of the arrest last week of a Mercedes Benz executive.
The unnamed executive, a manager with the car company, was visiting on business and driving a rental car. He was stopped for not having a tag. He had his German identification with him, but not his driver’s license, so he was arrested and charged with the new offence of ‘driving without a proper ID’. (Previously, drivers who lacked licenses received a ticket and a court summons). He was released after a colleague retrieved his passport and license from his hotel.
Mercedes Benz has their US manufacturing plant in Tuscaloosa, which explains why Republican Governor Robert Bentley called the state’s homeland security director, Spencer Collier, after hearing of the arrest to get details about what had happened.
Collier claimed to the Washington Post that the call was nothing special and certainly nothing to do with the petty arrest of an executive of a major foreign investor in the fifth poorest American state.
“It’s just to make sure they’re using best practises and following the law,” he said.
The chief executive of Alabama’s state pension system, David Bronner, said last week that other states competing with Alabama for foreign-owned industries are using the law to portray Alabama as an unfriendly place.
There are reports that Spanish megabank BBVA Group has cancelled plans for an $80 million tower in Birmingham and that Golden Dragon, a Chinese copper pipe manufacturer, is having second thoughts about a $100 million plant in Thomasville — because of the state’s immigration law.
“Asians, Hispanics, they all have the same feelings you or I have,” Bronner says. “Why would they come here when we treat them differently than Illinois or Kentucky. 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. Alabama needs growth, and we need people to maintain growth.”
The most important component in economic development and industry recruitment, Bronner says, is making prospects feel welcomed to Alabama.
If the Hispanic feels he’s not welcome, the Chinese will think the same thing, then the Japanese and the mathematician from India, especially when you can go 50 or 100 miles and not have to put up with it.
We accomplish nothing but hurt ourselves. If we would have passed an immigration law that was softer — we could have done anything less than Arizona — and sent a message to Washington, we could have made the locals happy but we didn’t have to be the poster child.
Not only do we get all the abuse, we lose industry and we get to pay the big legal bills. For what? If you’re just blowing smoke, beating on your chest, what are you accomplishing?
Thomasville Mayor Sheldon Day told Business Week that “up until a few months ago, nobody raised the immigration issue.” But now those considering opening plants in the town are bringing it up regularly because he believes competing states are mentioning it in their negotiations and trying to portray Alabama as unwelcoming to foreigners.
Bronner says anyone who thinks the immigration law won’t have a huge impact on business is in denial.
“Anytime a state screws up, or a governor says something bad, we use it. When we were recruiting Hyundai against Kentucky, anytime we could find something Kentucky did bad, we made sure Hyundai found out about it.”
“That’s the way it works,” he says.
Agriculture is already devastated. Brian Cash, an Alabama tomato farmer, told PBS:
“Tomato production contributes $1.6 billion a year to the state’s economy, but without immigrant labor, that money will disappear. We grow it. Hispanics pick it. That’s just the way it is.”
Picture by M.V. Jantzen