Many of the people arrested under Alabama's new immigration law--immigrants from Central and South America, documented or not--get no media attention.
A state that arrests or tickets executives from foreign automakers who provide thousands of jobs, however, makes the press sit up and take notice.
Two weeks, two executives
Just 12 days after a Mercedes-Benz executive was arrested and briefly jailed in Tuscaloosa for not having his driver's license with him.
Now it's happened again.
On Wednesday, Ichiro Yada, a Japanese national working on assignment at Honda's assembly plant in Lincoln, Alabama, was stopped at a traffic checkpoint where officers checked drivers' licenses in an attempt to catch unlicensed drivers.
Yada showed the officers a passport, a U.S. work permit, and a valid international driver's license. Despite that, he was issued a ticket--which was dismissed three days later by a judge, presumably at the request of embarrassed city officials.
Show us your papers
Alabama's HB56, the most aggressive state law to target immigrants, took effect in September. The U.S. Justice Department has filed suit against parts of it, saying it conflicts with Federal immigration enforcement. Last month a Federal appeals court struck down a provision requiring schools to prove legal residency for all students before enrolling them.
But provisions remaining in force require police officers to determine the nationality and immigration status of any persons they stop who they may suspect are in the U.S. illegally. All drivers must carry a valid license either from their state or their own country; undocumented immigrants are not allowed to receive licenses in the state.
Any person unable to prove his or her identification must be arrested--and the local mayor noted that Lincoln's police force must follow state law.
"There is not a whole lot we can do until the Alabama legislature sees that there is a problem," said Lincoln mayor Lew Watson. With Southern understatement, he added that the Legislature "would prefer that this not happen, I am sure."
The Economic Development Partnership of Alabama proudly boasts that the state now builds the fifth highest number of cars of any state in the country--from building none at all 20 years ago.
Mercedes-Benz opened its plant in Tuscaloosa in 1993, which now builds the M-Class, GL-Class, and R-Class sport-utility vehicles, and it plans to double that plant's output in 2015 by adding the C-Class sedan.
Honda opened its Lincoln, Alabama, plant in 1999. It now assembles the Odyssey minivan, Pilot crossover, and Ridgeline pickup truck, and will add the Acura MDX. Of the 4,000 workers at the Lincoln facility, Honda said roughly 100 were employees from Japan on assignment.
Both arrests were widely covered in the automotive trade press, and overseas as well. Britain's Guardian opened a lengthy article on the arrests with an Oscar Wilde allusion: "To arrest one foreign car-making executive under Alabama's new tough immigration laws may be regarded as a misfortune; to arrest a second looks like carelessness."
Mercedes-Benz teases new crossover at plant presentation in Tuscaloosa, Alabama
The immigration law has affected businesses beyond the auto industry. The state's agricultural sector has seen a sudden exodus of workers, and construction workers have fled as well. Families have pulled their kids out of schools, and many minimum-wage service workers no longer show up for their jobs.
Hostile to business, jobs?
States eager to welcome relocating or expanding companies often seize on bad publicity about other states to publicize their own attitudes of acceptance and tolerance. And other states have moved quickly to capitalize on Alabama's bad publicity.
After Hager's arrest, for example, Missouri's St. Louis Post-Dispatch published an editorial inviting Mercedes-Benz and other foreign automakers to relocate and join Ford and GM in that state's car industry.
David Bronner, CEO of Alabama's pension system, noted that the state's new immigration law is "giving the image, whether it's valid or not, that you don't like foreigners, period."