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Alabama has what's considered the nation's toughest law against illegal immigrants. And when the state legislature begins its regular session tonight, one of the big issues lawmakers will take up is changing that law. When called HB56 passed last year, Alabama's business community wasn't paying special attention. But now, as Tanya Ott of member station WBHM reports, business leaders are driving efforts to modify the law.

TANYA OTT, BYLINE: Whoever said all publicity is good publicity probably never had dozens of protesters gathered in front of their office calling them Hitler.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We are whipping up the same kind of nationalism about Americans that Hitler whipped up about Jews.

OTT: At lunch time in Birmingham's business district, students from several local colleges held a mock funeral in front of a bank. They accuse the company of funding private detention centers where they claim illegal immigrants have died. University of Alabama at Birmingham student William Anderson organized the event.

WILLIAM ANDERSON: Everybody that voted for HB56 should be ashamed of themselves. And they should all be pushing towards full repeal, not tweaking anything. You can't tweak hate.

OTT: It's not likely the legislature will repeal the law, but there is mounting pressure to tweak it. Among other things, the law requires schools to record the legal status of all students. It also requires proof of citizenship to renew a driver's license or enter into any government contract.

CINDY CRAWFORD: The problem the governments have run into is the law is really broad in its definition of a contractor or subcontractor.

OTT: Cindy Crawford is editor of the Birmingham Business Journal.

CRAWFORD: So to follow the law and cover all their bases, governments have sent paperwork requests to just about every company they do business with.

OTT: It's the law of unintended consequences. Long lines at the courthouse to renew car license tags and vegetable crops rotting in the fields since workers fled.

Business leaders got caught flat-footed when the law passed. It was soon obvious it would have a significant effect on economic development. Especially after two foreign autoworkers - a German executive with Mercedes Benz and a Japanese worker at a Honda plant - were detained under the law.

The St. Louis Post Dispatch newspaper ran an editorial inviting companies to relocate to the Show Me State, not the Show Me Your Papers state. Brian Hilson is the CEO of the Birmingham Business Alliance.

BRIAN HILSON: It's not like business prospects are sounding an alarm and coming to us and telling us that they're rethinking their plans to do business in Alabama. It's the unknown. It's what they're not saying to us.

OTT: Hilson says there's no way to know how much business the state is losing, but researchers at the University of Alabama peg the cost at up to $11 billion in lost jobs and income and sales tax revenues.

Scott Beason rejects that number and any efforts to significantly change the law. Beason is the Republican state senator who co-sponsored the original bill.

STATE SENATOR SCOTT BEASON: If people begin to cave from political pressure, that donors want something changed, they'll have to do it against the vast majority of the people in their district and go with the small special interest group that makes their decision based on profit.

OTT: A public opinion poll conducted last week found 42 percent of respondents say they support the law, but think it goes too far. Already, several legislators have introduced bills to modify it and the courts have ruled some provisions unconstitutional. Still, there's no disputing supporters of the law have achieved their main goal, driving illegal immigrants out of Alabama.

For NPR News, I'm Tanya Ott in Birmingham.

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