By PHILLIP RAWLS
The Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Alabama (AP) — An “English-only” ad by a candidate in the Alabama governor’s race has drawn the state into the national debate over immigration stoked by a tough new Arizona law and generated an Internet crowd for the political scion running in a crowded Republican field.
The ad by construction business owner and candidate Tim James — viewed more than 500,000 times on YouTube since its release last week — is also generating criticism from rivals and advocates that it could reverse years of economic development based on luring foreign companies, including carmakers from Germany, Japan and South Korea.
James, son of former two-term Alabama governor Fob James Jr., says in the ad that he would drop the practice of giving the state drivers license exam in 12 languages other than English.
“This is Alabama. We speak English. If you want to live here, learn it,” James says.
In James’ view, it will make highways safer, save the state money, and hasten the assimilation of legal immigrants into Alabama society.
The ad comes as members of both parties in Congress maneuver to either add or duck immigration as a midterm election issue and as immigration advocates file legal challenges a new Arizona law that makes being an illegal immigrant a state crime enforced by police.
Critics say James’ idea is counterproductive in a state that has received substantial help from 358 foreign businesses to build a manufacturing base that includes Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai and Honda auto assembly plants. They point to 40 other states — including every one in the Southeast — that compete with Alabama for new industry give the test in multiple languages.
State officials don’t have numbers tracking how many foreigners work in the state. Many of them are managers, engineers and other high-salary employees who may have non-English speaking spouses. In 2000, according to the last U.S. Census, there were 108,000 people in Alabama, or 2.9 percent of the state’s population, who spoke a language other than English at home.
Bill Johnson, a Republican rival of James in the June 1 primary, said his opponent’s ad is not good for business development.
“If Tim wanted to attack illegal immigration, I wish he would have just said so,” said Johnson, who as a member of he current governor’s Cabinet helped put together Alabama’s industrial recruitment program. “Instead, I believe his ad sent the wrong signal and possibly insulted thousands of our legal international citizens and business partners.” Johnson said.
Isabel Rubio, executive director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, says the change would reduce safety because people will continue to drive whether they pass the exam in English or not. It’s in the best interest of all motorists for the state to license as many safe drivers as possible, regardless of their primary language, she said.
ProEnglish, an organization from Arlington, Virginia, that advocates English-only exams, sued the state three years ago to end the exam in multiple languages. Alabama’s current governor and attorney general, Republicans Bob Riley and Troy King, successfully defended the state against the suit.
James’ ad has resonated with voters concerned about illegal immigration and stood him apart from a crowded Republican field where all seven candidates are running on a standard Republican platform of low taxes and less government.
“We have definitely hit a nerve with Alabamians and people across the country,” James said. “What’s happening in Washington and Arizona has only amplified the people’s awareness of the issue and their wariness of government to make the right decisions.”
James did not originate the idea. A Republican legislator tried to pass an English-only bill in Alabama in 2008, but was blocked by Senate Democrats. Similar legislation is pending in Tennessee and Georgia, where the state Senate has already passed the measure.