TOPICS > Economy

Alabama’s Immigration Law: Assessing the Economic, Social Impact

October 13, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The economical and social effects of Alabama's new immigration law are starting to show. Judy Woodruff discusses the impact with Grow Alabama's Jerry Spencer, State Rep. Mike Ball, R-Huntsville, and the Rosa Toussaint-Ortiz of the Hispanic-Latino Advisory Committee.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Alabama’s new immigration law, recently upheld by a federal judge, is now starting to have an economic impact in the state. Representatives of the agricultural and construction industries say they are losing a significant portion of their work force.

And it is against that backdrop that the state’s Hispanic community is voicing opposition.

The Miami-Pueblo supermarket in Birmingham closed its doors yesterday, joining Hispanic-owned businesses across Alabama to take a stand against the state’s tough new immigration law.

WOMAN: We, all the Hispanics, we should all be together to represent you know our — how we feel to the state about it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The work stoppage also hit the poultry industry. The parking lot was almost empty at a Tyson Foods chicken plant in tiny Albertville in northeastern Alabama. Operations slowed or even stopped, as many Hispanic employees staged a one-day sick-out.

It was the latest and perhaps largest protest against the law known as HB-56 passed earlier this year. One key provision authorizes police to detain anyone who’s suspected of being in the country illegally. Supporters say it’s intended to help legal residents by pushing illegal immigrants out of the work force.

MAN: It’s illegal, and they are getting most of the jobs that we need right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Two weeks ago, a federal judge in Alabama upheld the law’s main provisions.

The state’s Republican governor, Robert Bentley, welcomed the decision.

GOV. ROBERT BENTLEY, R-Ala.: It wouldn’t have been necessary to address this problem if the federal government would have done its job and enforced the laws dealing with this problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, since then, some local officials have warned that thousands of children here legally could be left in limbo.

JERRY GROCE, director of Human Resources, Franklin County, Ala.: Worst-case scenario for us would be if we had a large number of children who were suddenly dependent and had no relatives who were able and willing to take care of them. And that possibly could happen if the parents were arrested or deported suddenly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Schools are also voicing concern. They’re now required to check the immigration status of prospective students. And, already, absentee rates are rising among Hispanic students.

In the meantime, the Mexican Consulate in Huntsville has sent out a team to help families get documents they need to return to Mexico if needed.

We talk now with Jerry Spencer. He’s founder of the Birmingham-based Grow Alabama, which delivers locally grown produce in the state.

Jerry Spencer, thank you for joining us. I understand you work with 200 to 300 farmers in the state. What do they grow and what’s happened to their workers in the last few weeks?

JERRY SPENCER, Grow Alabama: Well, our farmers grow a broad range of various fruits and vegetables.

And they are — some of them are large enough to be pretty heavily impacted by the loss of their Hispanic workers. I found this out a couple of weeks ago Friday after the decision was made, the law was enacted, and called around to three of my farmers. And that was enough for me to know that there was a serious impact going on.

So I slept on it overnight, and put it on Facebook, and started getting a force — mobilizing a force for the farmers to replace what they’d lost, the workers that they’d lost. Many of them were…

JUDY WOODRUFF: So…

JERRY SPENCER: Yes?

JUDY WOODRUFF: I was just going to ask, how many altogether have left, and why did they say they were leaving?

JERRY SPENCER: Well, the only figures I have seen are state figures, which are about 185,000.

And the reason for them leaving was the fear of incarceration, arrest, hassle from the police, which they have been given the right to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what sort of work were these laborers doing, the ones who left? Where are you now in the crop, the harvesting cycle? How urgent is it that they be replaced?

JERRY SPENCER: Well, the urgency is in the final stages of the last harvest of the year, essentially. So, the urgency — you know, there will be a significant loss of harvest in the next few weeks.

But the big concern is the decisions that the farmers are going to have to make about whether they continue to farm next year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are replacement workers available? I mean, we know that some of the state representatives, including the one we’re about to talk to, is saying that there are other folks in Alabama who are unemployed who would love to take these jobs.

JERRY SPENCER: There are plenty of those folks, and that’s who we are trying to mobilize.

We’re starting at a very small — on a very small basis, 40, 50 people last week. And we’re looking at the details of what’s necessary, transportation, the workability of these unemployed city folk working on farms.

The — so we’re looking at all of that. Out of 40, 50, 60 people, we probably have maybe 10 people who really could actually work on a farm.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, bottom line, these workers can be replaced?

JERRY SPENCER: It’s not impossible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Well, we will leave it there, Jerry Spencer. And we appreciate your joining us.

And we want to talk now a little bit more about the impact of the Alabama law.

And we want to turn to Representative — state Rep. Mike Ball of Huntsville, Ala., who supports the law. He joins us from Knoxville, Tenn. And Rosa Toussaint-Ortiz, she is chairwoman of the Hispanic/Latino Advisory Committee in Huntsville. And she joins us from there.

Let me start with you, Rep.e Ball.

We heard not only from Mr. Spencer. We talked today with a contractor in the state who is concerned about people leaving these jobs. Was that the consequence you expected when the law was passed?

MIKE BALL, (R) Alabama state representative: Yes, I think so.

I think that was the — that was the purpose of the law, was to discourage those who are here in Alabama illegally. We have a huge poverty problem in Alabama. We have a problem with unemployment. And many of the folks that come to Alabama illegally, they have a different set of rules that they’re hired by. They don’t have to have workman’s comp insurance. They don’t have to have employee tax.

A lot of them were paid 1099 or paid under the table. So it puts our working — undereducated, the very people that’s having a problem with unemployment, it puts them at a competitive disadvantage, and we need a level playing field.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Ms. Rosa Toussaint-Ortiz, how do you see the effect the law is having?

ROSA TOUSSAINT-ORTIZ, Hispanic/Latino Advisory Committee: What I see is, I understand what they are saying in reference to the jobs, and the ones that are already citizens, they need those jobs.

But what I don’t understand is how did we decide to make a decision, a law so harsh. They have put all these people in a crisis. It’s a chaos here. We are dealing with human beings. It doesn’t matter if they are legal or illegals.

Even if they were going to pass that law, they should have gave the people time to process all these changes. What we have created now is chaos, crisis, misunderstanding. The police are not sure what’s going on, what they should be doing. The Department of Motor Vehicles is not completely sure. The people themselves are completely confused, because what happens is the language barrier has caused rumors.

So people are going by rumors. People don’t have the clear information, and they are just completely afraid. The children are seeing…

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, let — I was just going to say, let me turn back to Rep. Ball, and ask you about her description of a crisis.

She said people don’t know where to turn, there’s a language barrier and there’s just a lot of confusion.

MIKE BALL: Well, first of all, this bill was passed during the last session of the legislature months ago, and it only just now took effect. As a matter of fact, during the whole campaign season, this was something that was talked about.

There is, certainly, a lot of confusion about the law. I think a lot of the opponents of the law have — have fueled a lot of fear in — I mean, some of the things that they have said the law does, it really doesn’t do. You know, there’s no reason for somebody to be afraid of this law to keep their child out of school. The provisions that are applied to schools are merely statistical counting.

So — but then, you know, people — there are folks that are fueling the fear, and, quite frankly, if you’re here illegally, you probably should be — should be afraid that you could get in trouble. That’s why you make things illegal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ms. Toussaint-Ortiz, what about that basic point, that if people are here illegally, then they shouldn’t expect to stay?

ROSA TOUSSAINT-ORTIZ: Well, the first thing is, we shouldn’t dehumanize.

We are — what I’m saying is, if they are illegal, they should have received time to make the decision of moving out of state. You cannot — right now, we have — and, you know, let me tell you what really upsets me. When we get tornadoes — and this has been like a tornado on the community.

We see the counselors, pastors, they go to the school to help the children. There have been kindergarten classes like in Albertville that 20 children disappear in one minute. And no one — what I find outrageous is that this is going on, people see the news, and it’s like they are — the community, the U.S. citizens, they are, like, numb. They’re not doing anything to help.

And let me — you mentioned before the consulate. The Mexican Consulate has been here yesterday, today, and they were supposed to be here tomorrow. Now, the church, they allow us to stay there. They just canceled on us without giving us a good reason. And all these people, we have got about 300 and some people coming tomorrow that they’re not going to have — they’re not going to be able to serve because now we don’t have a place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just finally, one quick final word from Rep. Ball.

Is there going to be an attempt to clarify this situation for them?

MIKE BALL: Well, quite frank — as far as the people that are here illegally — if they’re here legally, they have no problem, nothing to be concerned about.

If they’re here illegally, then there are some measures in this law that would — that would make it rough on them…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

MIKE BALL: … I mean, because it’s — I don’t mean make it rough. I mean they could be arrested.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will have to leave it there.

We want to thank you, Rep. Mike Ball…

MIKE BALL: Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … from the state of Alabama and Rosa Toussaint-Ortiz.

We appreciate both of you joining us.

MIKE BALL: Thank you.

ROSA TOUSSAINT-ORTIZ: Thank you.