Note: A longer version of this article, as well as a data analysis of the 164 anti-immigration laws passed by state legislatures since 2010, appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Mother Jones. Read the whole package: Inside the Self-Deportation Movement.
Saturday was game day in Alabama, a clean, bright September afternoon. The Crimson Tide and Tigers were both at home, all but emptying Birmingham out. I headed north toward Cullman County to talk with Keith Smith and other farmers about HB 56, Alabama's divisive anti-immigration bill—the toughest in the nation, signed by Gov. Robert Bentley in June and suspended at the end of summer after several groups sued to stop it, forcing US District Judge Sharon Blackburn to consider its constitutionality. Her ruling, which came down this morning, allows much of the law's most draconian provisions to stand. (Read more below.) But even before the ruling, Alabama had suffered a long summer of bitter confrontations over race and regulation, and in many ways, the damage has been done.
The vista along I-65 still showed scars from the massive tornadoes that ripped through the state back in the spring, just a week before HB 56 passed—in buzz-cut swaths and pools of pine and scrub oak smashed and smeared together on a bluff. Among the towering lampposts that light this highway at night, a couple had been snapped in half. One even made for fascinating disaster art, bent and twisted like a Calder public sculpture. Farther north, heading into Golden Ridge, the road was flanked by more fallout: piles of rock and rubble flanking lucky homes somehow spared, and blue tarps flapping on the roofs of others, less lucky but still standing. I pulled into Keith Smith Farms, a compound of chicken houses and warehouses at the far end of a long gravel drive and fields bending over the horizon.
Smith pulled up in a white pickup with a couple of collies, each with a lame back leg but hobbling at an impressive clip. Smith is an enormous man whose size befits the truck he drives. He moved slowly and with effort, suppressing a pain that seemed to rise up from swollen, darkened ankles. Smith grows sweet potatoes and greens in addition to raising pullets for Tyson, Ingham, and other poultry giants. Farmer Keith Smith says HB 56 will put him out of business.The previous Monday, he and other farmers had met with lawmakers, including state Sen. Paul Bussman, at a restaurant in nearby Good Hope to air their grievances over HB 56, making clear their farms were at risk. Bussman, a Republican, had himself publicly expressed concern over aspects of the bill, but he voted for it nonetheless. As for Smith, he'd expected little relief from the meeting—he'd already lost eight workers due to fears about the law's impending passage—and wasn't too optimistic about his future as a farmer, either.
He did not mince words about the circumstances. "Majority of people that works for me," he said in a deep, marbled drawl, "with the kind of jobs I got, they're illegal. There ain't no use in beating around the bush saying they ain't or whatnot. That's just the way it is." Fake papers, no papers, tax-filing mysteries—"I've worried about all this stuff and done it for years, and I just go to where I throwed my hands up and said, 'To hell with it. I'll just work 'em, pay 'em, and forget about it.'"
The problem, of course, is that anyone here legally refuses to do the kind of backbreaking work Smith has to offer. It stands to reason that anyone with good papers—even well-faked papers—would make the most of them. Agriculture is a grueling, billion-dollar industry in Alabama. A third of that business is poultry, the rest driven by small farms like Smith's. Wages range from the $7.25-an-hour state minimum wage to about $14 an hour (other jobs are paid as "piecework"—30 cents a bucket of potatoes, say, or a couple bucks per thousand chickens for chicken catchers). And while anti-immigration arguments hang on the idea that if illegal workers were barred from these jobs Americans would be enticed onto these fields and into these chicken houses, Smith and other farmers don't give it a second thought. Most of the non-Latinos that Smith has hired over the years last maybe a couple of hours at most, he says, before they quit.
"If you see 'em and they're hungry, or if they out here run over by an automobile layin' in a ditch, and you help 'em, you're breakin' the law."
Smith told me that none of the farmers he knew supported HB 56 as it stands—which was not to say they didn't support some type of immigration reform. Every employer you talk to who relies on illegal labor would prefer to find some simpler process to hire one of America's most motivated workforces. But the argument has long been one of reform versus enforcement, and in the case of HB 56, enforcement is written to the extreme. "All of us would like to see an immigration law we can deal with," Smith said. He mentioned fee-based work permits, background checks, tracking numbers, some of which Sen. Bussman had recommended. "But the way this bill is now," Smith said, "if you have anything to do with them whatsoever, you're breaking the law. If you see 'em and they're hungry, or if they out here run over by an automobile layin' in a ditch, and you help 'em, you're breakin' the law." He swung to smash a fly on his desk, and missed. "It's just not right."
Though it comes off as exaggeration, the scenarios Smith mentioned do fall within the purview of HB 56. The law is alarmingly tough, eclipsing Arizona's SB 1070 by several measures—including, among other punishments, incarceration and fines for anyone who knowingly employs, harbors, or transports illegal immigrants. Giving an undocumented immigrant a ride to work, offering them shelter, offering them sacrament: All of these acts are, with just the slightest interpretation, criminalized in the bill. Chicken houses on Smith's farmThe language is that sweeping and vague. One of the more incendiary measures of the law requires the Department of Education to "accurately measure and assess the population of students who are aliens not lawfully present in the United States"—a provision that flirts with undermining the Supreme Court's 1982 ruling in Plyler v. Doe, which guarantees an education to undocumented immigrant children. State Sen. Scott Beason insisted that the measure was simply a matter of accounting: "That is where one of our largest costs come from," he told the Montgomery Advertiser. "It's part of the cost factor. Are the parents here illegally, and if they were not here at all would there be a cost?" But it doesn't require too much extrapolation to figure out that by this simple head count, teachers could become unwitting, harboring accomplices if they fail to turn a family in.