TOPICS > Economy

For Undocumented Workers, It’s Not-so-Sweet Home Alabama

October 28, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The controversial Alabama immigration law, know as HB 56, instructs employers to check a worker's immigration status with the government's E-Verify system. Paul Solman reports from Alabama on how one of the nation's toughest immigration laws affects workers and employers.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, how workers, farmers and businesses in Alabama are dealing with a new immigration law that’s attracting national attention.

NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman visited the state and filed this story, part of his ongoing reporting on Making Sense of financial news.

PAUL SOLMAN: A recent rally of Latinos in Birmingham, Ala., protesting the country’s newest and toughest immigration law.

MAN: Someone said that no one chooses where to be born, but we can decide where to live.

PAUL SOLMAN: The law, known as HB 56, instructs police to detain any suspected illegal immigrants; employers to check a worker’s immigration status with the government’s E-Verify system.

MAN: We must fight together until HB 56 is repealed.

PAUL SOLMAN: Latino Alabamians even walked off their jobs for a day in protest. Problem is, in rural Alabama, most appear to be gone for good.

MAN: Our father in heaven, we pray that those fruit and vegetable producers might have that work force in place that is required to harvest the crops that they produce.

PAUL SOLMAN: At a meeting in Blount County, farmers were decrying a labor drought that’s just gotten worse.

JEREMY CALVERT, vegetable farmer: For us, it’s all about survival. That’s just the bottom line, folks. Without a viable labor source, we cannot survive.

PAUL SOLMAN: When the law went into effect last month, immigrant farm workers fled the fields, hobbling the harvest.

DENNIS MAZE, poultry farmer: It’s emotional when you have got a crop and you have got your livelihood and your home invested in that crop, and all of a sudden, it’s rotting in the field.

PAUL SOLMAN: But illegal immigrants cost taxpayers millions in services and drive down wages in a state where nearly 10 percent are unemployed.

So says state Sen. Scott Beason, the law’s co-sponsor. He aims to protect jobs.

SEN. SCOTT BEASON, R-Ala.: The jobs that Alabama citizens can’t hold because they’re displaced by an illegal worker. What is lost is the effect on American workers who have been phased out of the market.

PAUL SOLMAN: And not just in the fields, says Beason. He gets calls from construction contractors who say they can’t compete with those hiring undocumented workers.

Their complaint:

SEN. SCOTT BEASON: “I pay the insurance. I pay the workers compensation. I pay my men well, and I’m going to go out of business,” which means that he’s at risk of losing everything he has, all his employees are at risk of losing everything they have. And that’s part of the story that’s never told.

PAUL SOLMAN: On the street, Beason’s law seems to enjoy majority support.

MAN: I think it’s great, and I hope it gets enforced 100 percent to the extreme, bar none.

MAN: Oh, I’m all for it. I feel like what’s taking place in America right now is a slow-moving invasion. Our country is being taken advantage of and being exploited.

PAUL SOLMAN: But the not-so-silent minority feels the law is stereotyping Alabama.

MAN: It’s xenophobic and it’s embarrassing that I live in this state, and that the whole country talks about how backwards we are.

PAUL SOLMAN: The farmers’ lament is more down-to-earth, that the law will kill a $5.5 billion industry. J&J Farm is scrambling to pick the last of its tomatoes with just half its normal work force. Eighty percent of Chad Smith’s crew vanished when the bill became law.

CHAD SMITH, tomato farmer: We still had 30 acres to pick, and normally, those 30 acres, we could pick in two to three days. Well, it took us two weeks to pick it. So by the time we was getting to the end of the field, our fruit was too ripe. You had to throw it on the ground or leave it on the vine.

PAUL SOLMAN: Smith may not farm next year, when the law will apply all season, not just at the end of the harvest.

Scott Beason counters that legal Americans will work the fields instead, because employers who’ve long exploited immigrants will have to hike the pay to lure them.

SEN. SCOTT BEASON: When you have a never-ending supply of laborers, cheap laborers, illegal laborers, it pushes down wages for everybody. It pushes it down for the illegal laborers themselves and for the citizens and legal immigrants who are competing for those jobs. It pushes all those wages down.

PAUL SOLMAN: But Keith Smith says the global market sets price, not farmers.

KEITH SMITH, sweet potato farmer: If we pay more, it eventually puts us out of business is what’s going to happen. And you’re going to end up with food supplies, instead of coming from America, they’re going to be coming from Mexico, from Chile, from Honduras, where they’re not really regulated like we are.

PAUL SOLMAN: Moreover, the farmers insist, most Americans just can’t or won’t do farm work. When Smith’s immigrants fled, he hired locals to help harvest his sweet potatoes.

KEITH SMITH: I probably had three or four out of 50 that is really worth anything, as far as being a good worker. It’s just a lot of it is, is, they’re not skilled and they don’t know how to do what we’re doing, and they ain’t durable enough.

PAUL SOLMAN: They aren’t durable enough?

KEITH SMITH: They ain’t durable enough, because they’re not used to doing that kind of stuff. They come out and work two to three hours and: Whew. I have had it. I can’t take this anymore.

PAUL SOLMAN: Come the fall, some 40 workers usually pick Smith’s sweet potatoes. He’s down to 15, many of whom live nearby.

This was Melinda Martinez’s (ph) fourth day on the job.

WOMAN: And I had to go home yesterday. I couldn’t handle it. It’s backbreaking.

PAUL SOLMAN: Martinez couldn’t keep pace. At 40 cents per bucket, she made $30 for the day, compared to $75 and up for a practiced picker.

WOMAN: It ain’t really worth the gas I’m spending to get here.

PAUL SOLMAN: Jerry Spencer has been ferrying unemployed workers from Birmingham, an hour away. Most last a day or two.

JERRY SPENCER, Grow Alabama: City workers are unprepared physically, mentally and in training. And I’m seeing some good hardworking people coming out of the cities that may stick with it, but — but you can bet, as the economy gets better, they find a job in the city, that’s where they’re going.

SEN. SCOTT BEASON: I just refuse to believe that Americans will not or cannot do these jobs.

PAUL SOLMAN: Give it time, says Scott Beason.

SCOTT BEASON: No one can walk out there the first day and pick tomatoes or squash or whatever the vegetable of the day is. I understand that there’s going to be a short hiccup as people, you know, reset how they’re doing business. But in the long run, Alabama will be better off.

PAUL SOLMAN: We relayed the message to Pastor Haskell Adamson (ph), also a farmer.

MAN: By the time we get them in shape to work, the farmers are all going to be broke.

PAUL SOLMAN: And what about the pickers? says Chad Smith.

CHAD SMITH: Hiccup ain’t a way to call it. Bump in the road ain’t a way to call it. You’re talking about people’s lives.

PAUL SOLMAN: Felipe Chacon, who won’t say if he’s legal or not, moved here from Mexico almost 30 years ago, has been picking tomatoes ever since.

FELIPE CHACON, tomato picker: It’s not just go to the vine and get a tomato. You have got to know what you’re doing. And it takes years, it takes years to learn how to do it.

PAUL SOLMAN: Chacon is staying put, despite a law spooking legals and illegals alike.

FELIPE CHACON: I suffer for my people being scared away. And it’s something that, really, it hurts, because I consider this my home.

PAUL SOLMAN: In the morning fog, Kim Haynes, driving his immigrants to work. Half his crew stayed, but he says:

KIM HAYNES, sweet potato farmer: I have to go pick them up and bring them to work, and at the end of the day, I have to carry them back home, because even the ones that are here legally are afraid to be on the highway. They’re afraid to drive because they’re afraid they are going to get pulled over. You know, it’s racial profiling. They know exactly who to pull over, because they can tell by looking at them.

PAUL SOLMAN: The worker on the right came from Mexico 14 years ago. He’s scared he will be deported and cut off from his daughter, American-born and, thus, legal.

MAN: It’s one of those things that I am thinking every day, you know?

PAUL SOLMAN: At a Hispanic rights center, we talked to an undocumented worker who asked we conceal his identity. He quit his job at a Birmingham restaurant and is now afraid to go outdoors.

MAN: Because I don’t want to risk being separated from my family over a traffic stop. You don’t feel safe anymore just going anywhere.

PAUL SOLMAN: Like many immigrant workers, he feels he’s being driven from his home.

MAN: I think everybody feels like we are just being discriminated against, completely, like not even being given a chance to speak or say anything, just basically, like, we don’t want you here, want you out of here. I think that people feel betrayed by the way this happened.

PAUL SOLMAN: On farms and at restaurants, undocumented workers may suffer, Scott Beason admits, but the law is the law.

SEN. SCOTT BEASON: I understand the situation that there are people in who have come here illegally, and then they have had children, knowing they were here illegally. Unfortunately, we can’t set state policy based on the situation that we didn’t cause.

PAUL SOLMAN: Look, he says, the law wasn’t intended to discriminate against anyone.

SEN. SCOTT BEASON: Any time you do something and you’re from Alabama, when somebody disagrees with an issue, they’re going to automatically cry racism.

MAN: It’s time for us, as brothers and sisters, to stand up for justice and stand up for equality!

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

PAUL SOLMAN: At the Birmingham rally, Latino and black civil rights leaders united in their opposition to the law.

Meanwhile, in farm country, small businesses pled their case to local politicians.

WOMAN: I’m asking, please, please, do not forget us.

PAUL SOLMAN: A U.S. appeals judge delayed parts of the law, but mostly it stands, driving away undocumented workers, but perhaps opening up jobs for the unemployed. If they can’t or won’t do the job, though, agriculture in Alabama could be headed the way of its immigrant work force.