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Alabama gov. offers to modify immigration law

MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Alabama's governor said Friday he's working to simplify Alabama's tough immigration law, which critics say has damaged the state's reputation internationally and caused hardships for legal residents. The law has been called the strictest in the United States.

Robert Bentley said officials want to eliminate unnecessary burdens on legal businesses and residents and protect faith-based services while ensuring that everyone working in the southern state is legal.

"We recognize that changes are needed to ensure that Alabama has not only the nation's most effective law, but one that is fair and just, promotes economic growth, preserves jobs for those in Alabama legally, and can be enforced effectively and without prejudice," the governor said.

The law had the goal of scaring off illegal immigrants and opening up jobs for legal residents in a state suffering from nearly 10 percent unemployment. It requires a check of legal residency when conducting everyday transactions such as buying a car license, enrolling a child in school, getting a job or renewing a business license.

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More than 30 groups and individuals challenged the law, but U.S. courts let several major provisions take effect in late September.

Since then, two foreign workers for Alabama's prized Honda and Mercedes auto assembly plants have been stopped by police for not having the required documents to prove residency. The cases were later dropped.

But the incidents brought unwanted international attention and prompted the Birmingham Business Alliance and others involved in industrial recruitment to call for changes.

Some immigrants fled, and some employers complained they could not find help to take their place.

Several parts of the law are on hold because of federal lawsuits, including a provision requiring schools to check the legal status of new students and making it a crime to transport an illegal immigrant.

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Faith-based groups have been among the critics of the law, because they say it makes religious outreach and charity to immigrant communities illegal.

One of the groups challenging the law said the governor's announcement represented a significant shift in the state's position.

"We are delighted legislators are recognizing the devastating consequences of the law," said Mary Bauer, legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center. She said she was troubled that the governor and legislative leaders offered no examples of what they want to simplify and that they said the essence of the law would not change.

"The essence of the law is what has devastated the Latino community and this state," she said.