In many ways, across the spectrum of community service, HB 56 puts those who serve the public in awkward positions between their community and the law. "The bottom line is," Anderson said, "we're trying to help people. But we'd be doing more damage than helping them. We'd be making them prone to avoiding us, even if they needed help. In a way, there is a possibility of being torn between following the letter of the law and helping a person in need. The law doesn't give law enforcement a whole lot of discretion."
Churches like this one could be prosecuted for aiding immigrants. Also, the town needs these workers now more than ever, says Anderson: "For our city to get back on track and get back to what our new normal will be, Hispanics will play a vital role. But if this bill passes, it's going to hamper our rebuilding effort. A lot of skilled labor is going to be forced to leave Tuscaloosa and Alabama in general. It's a real possibility."
Back in Cullman County, farmers like Keith Smith have no illusions about the impact of this bill, economic or otherwise. He's lost eight workers already and stands to lose several more if HB 56 passes—including those we could see out in his field on that game day, eight of them planting collards as the sun angled on them, so that the men bowed their heads to let the brims of their hats cast a little shade on their faces. The sweet potato crop alone is worth half a million dollars, employs about 20 out in the field, another 20 during harvest. "If I lose this crop, I'm out," he said. "I'll just have to do something else."
Did he have a plan? "They ain't no plan," he said, and kept tugging at his T-shirt, as if it stuck to his shoulders. "If Blackburn rules in favor of the state and all the help leaves, then that's pretty much it. I'll try and find people. But I'm fighting a losing battle."
Worse, it seemed to me, was a less quantifiable loss. Earlier that day I'd met with a Cullman couple named David and Sandra Bagwell, who run a couple of chicken catching crews, six men each, for the poultry giants. I'd sat in their kitchen while Sarah played a home video of a catch, pointing out the workers—who she called "her boys"—as they rounded up chickens in deceptively smooth, sweeping handfuls, with the relentless progression of a tide, 20,000 in an hour. She pointed to each figure as it moved across the screen, named him, and told me of his quirks and talents. She was, she admitted, "a nervous wreck" about HB 56, in part because wasn't sure what her workers would do once the law went into effect. She had the documents they'd provided her, but that didn't necessarily mean the documents weren't faked. With HB 56 looming, she said, "I don't know what I'm going to do Thursday morning." She knew other crews who were going to stick it out, and she worried that her own might disappear by Thursday morning. Their legality is ultimately a mystery, an issue the Bagwells never pried too deeply into. HB 56 will force her hand. "If they don't leave, I'm going to have to tell them we can't work with them anymore. I'm going to be the one to tell them, 'I can't afford to be fined, I can't afford to go to jail. I gotta let y'all go.' That's me puttin' them out of work and hurtin' their families. And at the same time, it's gonna cost me and David to lose everything if I can't find white boys to do this job."
"Shorty's like an uncle. I'll flat out tell you, I got family members in my bloodline I think less of than I do him. I been around him almost all my life. It's bigger than what people realize."
Letting her boys go will be a painful process, she said. These were more than laborers to the Bagwells—she didn't refer to them as "her boys" for nothing. A genuine friendship would be shredded. Mind you, there was still a line of sorts—cultural, color—but it was subtle. Her anxiety over doing them any harm was real, as real as the smoke seeping from her lips as she puffed constantly, a habit she'd picked up over the summer.
Smith and his son had an even more profound attachment coming to an end. Shorty, who'd arrived years ago from Guanajuato, Mexico, was comically small standing next to his boss, but between them you could sense a genuinely relaxed fraternity. As we sat in the open warehouse—Keith in a jerry-rigged recliner on a hubcab, his son Casey, 26, on a bench, and Shorty and I side by side on a van seat—we talked about Shorty's plans if HB 56 should pass. He'd known about the bill since its passage and had been saving ever since, in anticipation of September. "If the work ends, I'll go back to Mexico," he said. "I'm not going to stick around for a couple of weeks and burn through what I've saved up." He arrived in 1992, he said, and had been working for Keith Smith ever since. Both of Keith's sons, including Casey, who sat quietly across from us, grew up with Shorty—a fact that Casey made clear when he called me at my hotel later that night."People like Shorty, who been working for us for all these years, they're not just people we employ," Casey said, "they're family members. A lot of people don't realize that. A lot of them who've been here for so long, it's not that they're just labor. It's not that they're just here to do the job. There's a tie there. Shorty's like an uncle. I'll flat out tell you, I got family members in my bloodline I think less of than I do him. I been around him almost all my life. For eight years I spent 8-10 hours of my day knowing Shorty was going to be right there. And I was going to see him every day. It's bigger than what people realize."
"Yeah, that's gonna be tough," Keith said that afternoon, after we were quiet for a moment. "You know, somebody you've had a relationship with for 20 years, and all of a sudden they gotta haul ass just for a stupid reason." But then he looked at Shorty, and as if on cue they both chuckled in a way that hinted at 20 years of cracking each other up. "Me and Shorty was planning on having our retirement party together. You know we was gonna retire at the same day. We was hoping one of these days we could get to where we could just ride around in the truck and tell everybody what to do. Make sure there's work, chew everybody's ass out, and go on about our business."
When was that retirement supposed to have been?
"Well, it ain't no time soon," Keith said, and they laughed.
Update from the editor: US District Judge Sharon Blackburn has upheld many of the law's provisions while strinking down others. From the AP:
She said federal law doesn't prohibit checking students or suspects pulled over by police. She also refused to stop provisions that allow police to hold suspected illegal immigrants without bond; bar state courts from enforcing contracts involving illegal immigrants; make it a felony for an illegal immigrant to do business with the state; and make it a misdemeanor for an illegal resident not to have immigration papers.
She didn't say when those and other parts of the law could take effect, but her previous order blocking enforcement expires on Thursday. Neither Gov. Robert Bentley nor Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange had any immediate comment on when the state would begin enforcing parts of the law.
Blackburn's order temporarily blocked four parts of the law until she can issue a final ruling. Those measures would:
• Make it a crime for an illegal immigrant to solicit work.
• Make it a crime to transport or harbor an illegal immigrant.
• Allow discrimination lawsuits against companies that dismiss legal workers while hiring illegal immigrants.
• Forbid businesses from taking tax deductions for wages paid to workers who are in the country illegally.
Mother Jones will be following this story. Check back for more updates.
This story was reported with help from the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.