How Alabama’s immigration law is crippling its farms

November 3, 2011

FARMERS IN ALABAMA are in revolt against the state’s over-the-top immigration law, which is designed to hound illegal immigrants so that they move elsewhere. As it happens, a substantial portion of farm workers there, as in other states, are undocumented. In the farmers’ view, the law is depriving them of steady, experienced labor — and threatening to deal a lethal blow to crops throughout the state.

The uproar has exposed political fault lines within the Republican Party, whose vows of support for business have run headlong into its crusade to drive away illegal immigrants, on whom agribusiness relies. It’s also laying bare the nation’s hypocrisy over unskilled immigrants, whose legal entry into the country is blocked in most cases even though their labor remains much in demand.

Of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, some 7 million are in the job force. The idea that they can be deported or replaced en masse with jobless U.S. workers is far-fetched. That’s the message that Alabama farmers have been giving their elected leaders, so far to little avail.

Alabama lawmakers insist that, by driving undocumented workers out, they will open jobs for Americans; the unemployment rate in the state is nearly 10 percent. But farmers say that jobless U.S. workers, mostly inexperienced in field work and concentrated in and around cities, are ill-suited and mostly unwilling to do the back-breaking, poorly paid work required to plant and harvest tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and other crops. Farmers also say that, if they were to raise wages to make the jobs more attractive, as advocates for the new law suggest, crop prices would soar, making Alabama produce uncompetitive.

A federal court has stayed some parts of the Alabama law, such as a particularly obnoxious measure that requires school systems to collect information on the immigration status of students and their parents. But it has let stand other provisions, including one allowing police to demand documentation from suspected illegal immigrants who are pulled over in routine traffic stops. This has prompted some of the state’s estimated 120,000 illegal immigrants to pack up and head elsewhere.

Some lawmakers, including Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), are suggesting the creation of a guest-worker program to recruit sufficient numbers of farm hands and other unskilled workers. But the workers required are already in the United States. Congress and the federal government have failed to establish an adequate supply of visas for the immigrant labor drawn here by the prospect of jobs. The right thing to do is to fix the problem by enabling those workers to legalize their status and put them on a path to citizenship.

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