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Auto exec's arrest a new flashpoint in Alabama's immigration debate

By Gustavo Valdes and Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
updated 4:36 PM EST, Tue November 22, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A Mercedes-Benz executive is detained because he doesn't have proper ID
  • Lawmaker: Police "didn't pull that guy over because he looked Hispanic"
  • Opponents say the arrest shows the law will scare away businesses
  • Editorial: The law "is becoming the greatest threat to the state's economy"

(CNN) -- Fierce critics of Alabama's controversial new immigration law -- and one of its staunchest supporters -- are pointing to the arrest of a German Mercedes-Benz executive last week to make their case.

Police in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, pulled the man over because of a problem with the tag on the rental car he was driving, and then detained him when he didn't have proper identification on hand, according to Alabama's homeland security director.

Mercedes-Benz issued a statement describing the arrest as "an unfortunate situation," but provided few details.

"The incident was resolved when our colleague -- who was visiting from Germany on business -- was able to provide his driver's license and other documents to Tuscaloosa Police," the company said.

For state Sen. Dick Brewbaker -- one of the law's backers -- the arrest shows that officers aren't racially profiling and that the state is enforcing the same types of requirements other countries have.

"This police officer in Tuscaloosa, he sure didn't pull that guy over because he looked Hispanic," Brewbaker told CNN. "He was just enforcing the law."

But opponents fighting the state's tough new measure say the arrest shows that the new law will scare businesses away from Alabama rather than create jobs.

"They have a beautiful Mercedes plant here in Alabama, and then you go and arrest the executive from Germany that comes here. I mean, do you want the jobs and the commerce, or do you want the stain that comes with discriminatory legislation?" said U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois who was in Alabama Monday to protest the law.

Tuesday's edition of the Tuscaloosa News also weighed in with an editorial arguing that the "immigration law is becoming the greatest threat to the state's economy and job creation."

The editorial urged Republican lawmakers, who have said they are considering revisions to the law, to scrap it altogether.

"If the Legislature really wants to succeed in creating a welcoming environment for businesses, it should start with repealing the immigration law that puts their executives in jail and sends their workers heading for the state line," the editorial said.

Alabama's law cracking down on illegal immigration is considered the strictest in the nation.

Among other things, the law requires police to check immigration status during traffic stops.

Brewbaker told CNN that requiring immigrants and foreign visitors to carry identification is common around the globe.

"I know a good many people with Hyundai and companies like that have gone to live in Korea. They say, 'We're expected to carry our papers with us because we're foreigners,'" he said. "That's the standard worldwide. I don't want Alabama to be any more onerous on visitors, as long as they're legally present, than anywhere else."

The U.S. Justice Department's has filed a lawsuit against Alabama over the measure -- one of several battles in a nationwide skirmish between state and federal officials over who controls immigration enforcement.

In a court filing last week, the department said Alabama's immigration law is unconstitutional and aims to threaten "the most basic human needs." On Monday, Gutierrez and 38 other House Democrats signed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Justice Department's lawsuit.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, who signed the law in June, has said the state measure is necessary because federal officials aren't doing enough to stop illegal immigration.

Alabama Director of Homeland Security Spencer Collier told CNN he had discussed the Mercedes-Benz executive's arrest with Bentley.

Rebekah Mason, a spokeswoman for the governor's office, declined to comment, referring questions to Collier.

It was unclear Tuesday whether charges had been filed against the Mercedes-Benz executive after last week's arrest. A spokesman for the Tuscaloosa Police Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

CNN's Kara Devlin, Joe Sutton and Nick Valencia contributed to this report.

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