Anti-illegal immigration bill stokes backlash in Alabama fields

Farmers in states like Alabama that have passed strong anti-illegal immigration laws are fighting back, saying they are losing labor and that US workers are unwilling to take up farm work.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted October 22, 2011 at 9:21 am EDT

Farmers fearing a labor shortage are protesting recent immigration laws they say are too harsh, forcing undocumented workers to flee to prevent deportation. They say US workers are unwilling to endure the rigorous conditions of farm work and that state legislators need to come up with solutions to prevent local agribusiness from going under.

More than 100 farmers and three state representatives in Alabama responded to the recent enactment of a slate of anti-illegal immigration laws by holding a public hearing this week in Oneonta, about 35 miles northeast of Birmingham. The farmers complained that they were already seeing laborers pack up and leave the state.

The new immigration laws will result in a $40 million hit to the state’s economy, with 10,000 illegal workers, each making about $5,000 a year, set to leave, according to a report released this week by the University of Alabama’s Center for Business and Economic Research.

Farmers are routinely the first to criticize immigration-reform efforts that target illegal workers, says Leo Chavez, a labor and immigration expert at the University of California, Irvine.

“If you get tough on undocumented immigrants, they lose their main labor force,” Mr. Chavez says.

There are already signs of an exodus in Alabama. The majority of school districts say that they’ve experienced a sharp drop in attendance of Hispanic students, a trend that prompted at least one superintendent to record a plea to parents that is airing continuously on a local Spanish-language television station.

Among its many measures, the new legislation in Alabama requires public-school officials to document which schoolchildren are not documented, plus it empowers law-enforcement officials to require documentation when people are pulled over for routine traffic stops.

Lawmakers at the farmers’ hearing all said they stood by their support of the measures but said there were opportunities to tweak it to accommodate agribusiness concerns next session. In talking with the Birmingham News Thursday, state Rep. Jeremy Oden (R) said one solution was a temporary-worker program that would allow workers from outside the US to work here seasonally.

US Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas is proposing a similar measure at the federal level, which would allow as many as 500,000 seasonal workers into the country each year. Yet many agribusiness leaders say guest-worker programs like these are costly, because they often require farmers to foot the bill for housing and other costs.

Advocates for immigration reform insist that the ultimate solution is for farmers to market their jobs to US workers, an approach they say would resonate at a time of high unemployment rates and a troubled economy.

Yet agribusiness leaders say US workers are not accustomed to farm work and would drive up costs by demanding higher pay and benefits.

This debate is also raging in Georgia, where farmers are protesting an immigration bill passed in the spring that is similar to the one in Alabama. Among its measures is a requirement forcing businesses with 10 employees or more to use a federal database to verify that each worker is allowed to work in the state legally.

Industry groups representing farming, poultry, construction, and tourism interests say the new law will result in millions of lost dollars for the state economy. The Georgia Department of Agriculture reports that this year’s harvest was short 11,000 workers, which farming advocates say was the result of Mexican immigrants leaving the state.

A labor shortage of 5,244 workers in seven of the state’s primary crops – blueberry, blackberry, Vidalia onion, bell pepper, squash, cucumber, and watermelon – resulted in a $75 million loss, according to the University of Georgia Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development.

The losses are “pretty significant,” says John McKissick, an agricultural economist at the University of Georgia. He says farmers participating in the survey say “they will either reduce acreage next year or reduce their harvest” as a result.

Georgia officials are countering the potential loss in labor by directing the Department of Corrections to create a voluntary program that will identify 100,000 former convicts who are currently on probation to receive consideration for agriculture jobs. A pilot program is currently underway involving three farms in southwest Georgia.

Complaints by farmers that US-born workers are often unreliable and demand higher wages is something that Chavez says, “might have been anticipated” by lawmakers drafting the reform measures. He proposes that one solution might be for future legislation to exempt agricultural workers entirely. However, even that proposal might not convince laborers it is safe to remain in the state.

“It’s very difficult. The message you’re sending out is, ‘We don’t want you here, and we’re going to make your life difficult.’ If you are a worker who is mobile, which is classic for undocumented workers, you’re going to think that maybe there’s a greener pasture somewhere else,” he says.

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