Will Alabama’s Immigration Law Cause Short-term Hiccup or Long-term Heartache?

BY Paul Solman  October 24, 2011 at 3:27 PM EST

Sweet potato pickers in Alabama

By Diane Lincoln Estes

Editor’s note: We just got back from several days in Alabama to report on the impact of the state’s new immigration law. Passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature in June, HB56 went into effect last month and is considered by many to be the toughest immigration law in the country. Among other provisions, it requires law enforcement officials to check a person’s immigration status during routine traffic stops or arrests if they suspect the person is in the country illegally.

Traveling in and around Birmingham, we heard from folks who felt passionately for and against the law. Republican State Senator Scott Beason helped draft the legislation and stands firmly behind it.

“As far as the core, the theme, the thrust of the law, I’m very satisfied with where we are,” he told us.

But when we traveled to rural northern Alabama, farmers said many of their workers fled the state after the law took effect and now they don’t have enough help to harvest their crops. Vegetable grower Jeremy Calvert addressed a farmers’ meeting on the law.

Farmer Chad Smith and foreman Jose Gonzalez

“There’s not one aspect of my operation that this law hasn’t touched,” he said. “Without a viable labor source we cannot survive. And when you’ve got payments to make and a family to feed and a farm that may have been in your family for five generations there’s a lot on your shoulders.”

The day after the law went into place, only six of Keith Smith’s 25 immigrant workers showed up to harvest his sweet potatoes. He’s been struggling to find help ever since. He’s hired some local workers but he says they aren’t cutting it.

“I’ve had several American workers. They come and leave about as fast. Three or four out of 50 are worth anything as far as being a good worker. I’m not saying they’re bad people. They’re just not skilled and they don’t know how to do what we’re doin’ and they ain’t durable enough.”

Sweet potato picker in Alabama

When we visited Smith’s farm there were about 15 workers picking. Many were local folks who’d been on the job for less than a week.

Melinda Martinez had been working for four days and wasn’t sure how much longer she’d last. “I had to go home yesterday. I couldn’t handle it.” She described the work as “back-breaking.”

Melinda and others told us they couldn’t keep up with the more experienced Hispanic immigrant workers and since they’re paid by the bucket, their earnings are measly.

“You have to be fast,” she said. “It ain’t really worth the gas I’m spending to get here.”
State Senator Scott Beason acknowledges that in the short-term the law may cause some bumps in the road.

“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.”

But tomato grower Chad Smith sees a much bigger problem. Smith estimates he lost as much as $300,000 because he couldn’t harvest all his tomatoes after the majority of his Hispanic crew left.

“Hiccup ain’t a way to call it, a bump in the road ain’t a way to call it, you’re talking about people’s lives, you’re talking about millions of dollars that agriculture puts in the state of Alabama and that feeds Alabama.”

We’re getting the broadcast story ready — stay tuned.

Photos, from top to bottom: Sweet potato pickers; Paul Solman interviews tomato grower Chad Smith and farm worker Jose Gonzalez about the impact of Alabama’s new immigration law; a sweet potato picker in rural northern Alabama. All photos by Diane Lincoln Estes.

This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown- NewsHour’s blog of news and insight. Follow Paul on Twitter.