The Last Saturday of September—game day in Alabama, the Crimson Tide and Tigers both at home—Birmingham seemed to have all but emptied out, fans having bolted west to the big one in Tuscaloosa, or south for the rout in Auburn. I was heading north to the farmland of Cullman County. The vista along I-65 still showed scars from tornadoes—some half a mile wide—that ripped through Alabama in April, part of a storm that carved a path all the way to the Carolinas. You could still see their mark in buzz-cut swaths of hillsides, in piles of pine and scrub oak smeared together on a bluff. Along the shoulder, a few of the slender, towering high-mast poles that light the interstate at night had been snapped in half. One even made for curious disaster art, bent and curved and twisted like a giant Calder sculpture.
Founded by a utopian German émigré who imagined it as “the garden spot of America,” Cullman itself is a sundown town with storybook touches: early 20th-century storefronts, the yawp and clatter of a train and boxcars plodding through downtown. On the outskirts, I drove past piles of rock and rubble that flanked incomprehensibly lucky houses the storm had left untouched. Blue tarps covered the rooftops where branches had punched through and now flapped in the breeze like a school-play rendering of the sea.
Not too far outside Cullman, in an area known as Gold Ridge, I found Keith Smith’s farm, a compound of chicken coops and warehouses at the end of a descending gravel drive, with fields rolling beyond. The chicken houses were open, empty and quiet. A tractor crept across one field, and I could see a row of baseball caps and pale straw hats bobbing above the frame of a seed setter being towed behind it.
Smith pulled up in a burly white pickup, trailed by a couple of collies, one with only one back leg, still hobbling at a pretty good clip. Smith’s size befits his truck, and as he got out and led me to his office, he moved slowly, with great effort, heeding a pain in his ankles. In addition to sweet potatoes, Smith grows greens and raises pullets for Tyson. He was one of the first farmers in Alabama to complain publicly about the impact of the state’s divisive anti-immigration bill, HB 56—a brave move, since doing so made him a potential target of the law, which criminalizes aiding or abetting undocumented immigrants in any way. Signed by Gov. Robert Bentley in June, the law had been temporarily stayed after several groups—the ACLU, the Department of Justice, civil rights groups, and the leaders of four faiths—sued to stop it, forcing US District Judge Sharon Blackburn to consider its constitutionality. The dozen workers Smith had in the field that day were planting collard seeds and were about half the number he’d need to harvest the sweet-potato crop. He worried that most would be gone by the following week, when the law went into effect. “If I lose this crop,” he said, “I’m out. I’ll just have to do something else.” Did he have a plan? “They ain’t no plan,” he said, tugging at his T-shirt. “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.”
Less than a week later, Blackburn’s ruling would allow many of the law’s most extreme provisions to stand, triggering an exodus of Latinos that left fields abandoned just as the autumn harvest began. (Among those who fled: all the workers in Smith’s field that game day.) Sitting in his John Deere-themed office—with hot sauce on his desk and a pocketknife sculpture as big as a hair dryer on the windowsill—Smith was blunt about the circumstances. “Majority of people that works for me,” he said, “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 ambiguities, whatever. “I’ve worried about all this stuff for years,” he said, “and I just got to where I throwed my hands up and said, ‘To hell with it. I’ll just work ’em, pay ’em, and forget about it.'”
Smith’s problem, which he spelled out in a deep, marbled drawl, is textbook by now: There simply aren’t enough people in the United States legally who are willing or able or geographically situated to do the backbreaking work most farms have to offer, a truth that has become increasingly clear as farmers—first in Georgia, where legislation similar to HB 56 passed last year, and now in Alabama—have scrambled to fill the vacuum left by a labor force that evaporated overnight. Agriculture is a grueling, $5 billion industry in Alabama: $3.4 billion comes from poultry; the rest is from farms and nurseries that produce everything from cattle to cotton, peanuts to azaleas. One of every five jobs in Alabama is connected to agriculture. Most are paid as piecework—75 cents a bucket of potatoes, say, or a couple bucks per thousand chickens—and most of that piecework is mercilessly physical. Poultry catchers are expected to gather some 2,000 birds in an hour, while for pickers it’s a matter of packing, say, 300 25-pound crates between sunrise and sunset. For the farmer, it’s a necessity to keep skilled, reliable workers close at hand when profits are made or lost in the brief window of the harvest. This pressure bears down on the men and women willing to stoop and kneel and pick and haul and bleed in order to perform grueling tasks with awesome efficiency—and then, for many, to move on to where the seasons lead them next. And while anti-immigration arguments hang on the idea that if illegal workers were barred from these jobs Americans would eagerly fill them, Smith and other farmers say this doesn’t square with reality. Cullman County is 93 percent white. Of the locals Smith has hired to replace the workers who fled, most lasted only a couple of hours he says, before they quit.
None of the farmers he knew were in favor of HB 56 as it stands, though “all of us would like to see an immigration law we can deal with.” He mentioned guest-worker programs, background checks, tracking numbers—the same strategies that some state Republican legislators have recommended. But the argument over immigration has long been one of reform versus enforcement, and in the case of HB 56, enforcement is emphasized to the extreme. “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’re 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.”
It comes off as exaggeration, but the scenarios Smith described fall within the purview of HB 56. The most draconian yet in a series of nativist laws taking root across the country, HB 56, like Arizona’s SB 1070 before it, criminalizes being in the United States without proper documentation—which under federal law isn’t a crime but a civil violation and cause for deportation. Both laws instruct law enforcement to act upon “reasonable suspicion” during routine traffic stops and arrests to determine whether to detain someone until his residency status can be confirmed through Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Both laws penalize anyone who knowingly employs, harbors, or transports (including giving a coworker a ride) undocumented immigrants, though Alabama’s law goes further in that it penalizes anyone who rents to them. It prevents undocumented immigrants from receiving state or local public services (interpreted by some officials to include running water). It bans them from enrolling in public colleges, from seeking or soliciting work, and requires all businesses and agencies—from poultry plants to laundromats, from the governor’s office to the sanitation department—to use the E-Verify system, a federal database used to determine the legal status of new hires. (Update: The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments from both sides on March 1.)
One of the law’s more incendiary measures requires the Alabama 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 education to all students regardless of their immigration status. The measure was simply “part of the cost factor,” state Sen. Scott Beason, cosponsor of HB 56, told the Montgomery Advertiser, stressing that public education for undocumented children “is one of our largest costs.” Meanwhile, teachers and school administrators worried that as they became unwitting—and unwilling—enforcers of immigration law, undocumented students would be intimidated into dropping out.
Their fears were prescient. The Monday after Blackburn’s ruling, which allowed the education provision to stand, more than 2,200 Latino students failed to show up for school statewide, double the average absentee rate. Sonia Smith, a school nurse at Tarrant Elementary, just north of Birmingham, fielded dozens of calls from parents offering excuses—panic attacks and fights over whether, and with whom, they should leave their American-born children should they be deported. Anne Pace, who teaches ESL at Tarrant, described some of her students arriving to class in tears; one started to hyperventilate, and the older kids seemed depressed and reticent, plagued by the idea that failure to produce the right paperwork would result in their parents’ disappearance. “It’s been very serious for them,” Pace told me. “They’re afraid for their parents. It’s the unknown that scares them.”
Alabama isn’t exactly a logical front in the war on illegal immigration. It isn’t a border state. Of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, only 120,000 live in Alabama, and those people account for just 2.5 percent of Alabama’s population. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, only a third of the state’s 34,000 Latino children are undocumented—less than one-half of 1 percent of all of Alabama’s students, according to the Census Bureau.
But the state’s undocumented population is estimated to have doubled since 2005, prompting the law’s proponents to use language that suggests an infestation. The measure’s sponsors, state Sen. Beason and state Rep. Micky Hammon, promoted the bill with campaign season hyperbole, calling out to the counties “most heavily hit” by illegal immigration, as if by some natural disaster. Hammon described it as being modeled after Arizona’s notorious SB 1070, but stressed that it had an “Alabama flavor” in that it “attacks every aspect of an illegal immigrant’s life.” At a Republican Party breakfast prior to the bill’s passage, Beason warned: “If you allow illegal immigration to continue in your area, you will destroy yourself eventually. If you don’t believe illegal immigration will destroy a community, go and check out parts of Alabama around Arab and Albertville.” (The mayors of both towns, both Republicans, bristled at the claim that their towns were going to hell.) Before returning to his seat, Beason called on his fellow Republicans to “empty the clip, and do what has to be done.”
As HB 56 was moving through the Legislature, Hammon made remarkable claims, telling the Anniston Star that illegal immigrants cost Alabama between $600 and $800 million annually in “a lot of things,” including unemployment benefits for pushed-aside legal residents, health care costs, education, and lost tax revenue. When the Star fact-checked his figures, it discovered that he’d simply extrapolated from a much-criticized Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) study that claimed illegal immigration cost Arizona $2.6 billion. The study’s own estimate of Alabama’s burden was only $298 million. Beason, meanwhile, cast HB 56’s purpose as “putting Alabamians back to work,” promising it would be “the biggest jobs program for Alabamians that has ever been passed.”
Yet for all the regional swagger, the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act (HB 56’s official name) is part of a larger anti-immigration effort orchestrated by FAIR and its legal arm, the Immigration Reform Law Institute. The main architect is Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, lawyer for IRLI, who crafted Arizona’s SB 1070 and who, in town after town, state after state, has helped write and refine dozens of nativist laws and ordinances. (See our profile of Kobach here. And check out our analysis of 164 anti-immigration laws passed since 2010 here.)
IRLI director Michael Hethmon calls these bills “field tests”—legal experiments launched wherever the political conditions are ripe, to see which will withstand court challenges in the hopes that one will eventually be upheld by the Supreme Court. Most of these field tests take the form of local ordinances or state laws with one or two provisions. What makes Alabama unique is that so many of the piecemeal experiments floated in other parts of the country were packed into one law.
It didn’t start out that way. Back in 2007, Kobach had advised Beason on a series of anti-immigration bills, only to see them shot down by the Democratic majority. But fortunes changed in 2010, when the state GOP unveiled the “Republican Handshake With Alabama,” an aggressive platform that pledged tax reductions, an end to wasteful spending and corruption in Montgomery, and a vow to protect Alabamians from federal “attack” in the form of “socialized health care.” The most rousing rhetoric was reserved for illegal immigration, described as a force that “threatens our homeland security, reduces the quality of life for taxpaying citizens,” and places Alabama’s resources “under tremendous burden.” The Handshake promised to give law enforcement the power to arrest an illegal immigrant “for simply setting foot in Alabama.” In the end, the Handshake helped Alabama Republicans win a supermajority in the Legislature, their first since Reconstruction.
Once the GOP controlled the Statehouse, Kobach helped Beason and Hammon craft a more sweeping law than had ever been attempted anywhere. Kobach said the legislators “had already decided that this was going to cover the waterfront.” His role was to take the blustering tone of the Handshake and transform it into “a state-of-the-art bill” that could withstand the lawsuits it would inevitably trigger—and serve as a template for similar efforts in other states.
“They were enthusiastic about trying virtually every area of law where immigration status could be a factor,” IRLI’s Hethmon said. “There was a sense that they wanted to be the toughest. They wanted bragging rights. But they were also sensitive to the fact that it would have to be scrubbed by the courts. Where Kobach was essential was the technical review. He had the background to convince them that it would be more productive to drop their cherished rhetorical expressions in their draft bills and use the denser, but more defensible, formulations that were coming out of our shop. So in our view, the stars lined up in Alabama.”
However dense the language of HB 56 may be, its spirit is best understood as “attrition through enforcement.” “If you ratchet up the level of enforcement,” Kobach said, “people begin to comply with the law. That’s a fundamental principle of deterrence. It’s cheaper and it doesn’t make that much of an imposition on the freedom of the illegal alien.”
In other words, from the perspective of the immigration hardliners, the Alabama exodus since September isn’t only the more cost-effective means of getting rid of undocumented aliens, but also the more humane way to do it—an exercise in free will.
“Illegal aliens are as logical as citizens,” Hethmon added. “They make a rational calculation, both in coming to the country and deciding to stay. They say, Can I make money? Can I get my basic human needs—housing, medical care—taken care of? And most importantly, to what extent can I function below the radar? In other words, to what extent can I, in a practical sense, nullify the nation’s legal distinctions between those who are citizens and those who are not? Whether they’re violating a federal criminal statute or federal civil statute or one at the state level is not that relevant. If they begin to believe that there are adverse consequences to their lawbreaking, they will self-deport.”
Kobach—a charismatic 45-year-old former Eagle Scout (and former adviser to Attorney General John Ashcroft) whose bio stresses his missionary work as well as his Ivy League pedigree—insists that the laws he ghostwrites are saving taxpayers money by freeing jobs for Americans, driving up wages, and reducing the financial burden undocumented immigrants place on public resources, including the cost of deporting them. “There is absolutely no credible dispute to the fact that illegal immigration costs government a lot in terms of public benefits, in terms of incarceration costs, in terms of costs borne by government,” he told me.
But Kobach omits the costs to defend the laws that Kobach crafts. Hazleton, Pennsylvania, a town of 25,000, racked up $2.8 million in legal fees; Farmers Branch, Texas, spent nearly $4.3 million. Kobach helped train the officers of Arizona’s infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio in immigration enforcement strategies; the DOJ recently ruled that Arpaio’s department created “a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos” and revoked its authority to conduct immigration screenings. The cost to the towns and states that have adopted his legislation, from Hazleton to Dallas, Missouri to Nebraska, is at least $6 million—money ill spent, some would argue, since many of the laws he’s helped write have been blocked by the courts. For his efforts, Kobach says he’s earned “less than a million dollars.”
Tuscaloosa was one of the towns hardest hit by April’s tornadoes. Driving along University Avenue, Police Chief Steven Anderson pointed toward empty lots: “There was a fire station back there,” he said, motioning out the window. “There used to be an apartment complex behind it. There, that used to be Alberta Baptist Church.” All told, more than 3,000 homes and businesses were damaged. It didn’t bode well that construction lobbyists were complaining to the newspapers that a noticeable chunk of their workforce had fled the state following HB 56.
In the days after the storm, Anderson realized that very few Latinos had shown up at the FEMA aid stations set up around town, despite the damage done to their neighborhoods—in particular, to the Graceland Apartments complex, where the brick facades were shredded and the rubble of a roof piled up behind windows.
Following a hunch, Anderson sent officers into these buildings. They discovered Latino families hiding in the ruins, nursing cuts and broken bones. Many wouldn’t ask for help from FEMA or the police or at hospitals for fear of being deported. Some had sought aid at Holy Spirit Catholic Church, which converted its parish hall into a makeshift shelter and even let some families sleep there, even though such sanctuary was criminalized by HB 56. (That provision was later enjoined by Judge Blackburn.)
As we toured the damage, Anderson said he supported the concept of immigration reform but then detailed a litany of complaints about HB 56. Could local law enforcement agencies—already gutted by layoffs and budget cuts—afford to train deputies to double as immigration officers? “We were told they were going to provide training for us,” he said, “and that didn’t happen. You just had a group of people who wanted a bill passed, and they did it. No guidance, no training, no funding.” Then there is a county jail with capacity for 540 inmates that’s already packed with more than 600. Not to mention the time suck: “We’re not going to sit there for two hours with a traffic stop or with a suspect waiting for the federal government to get back to us on the paperwork,” he told me as he turned down the crackled voices coming over his dispatch radio. “We have a job to do.”
Worse, he said, was the damage the law has done to the social fabric. “The law actually tells citizens, if you see something, you call in and you report it. And if law enforcement doesn’t do anything about it, you can file a civil suit against the heads of the departments for failing to enforce it.” Essentially, officers are required to investigate even clearly frivolous tips—a scenario he fears will lead to profiling and harassment, and trigger a host of lawsuits down the line. “You’ll have racist people that decide they’re just going to pick up the phone and make a call,” he said. “On other laws—murder, robbery, burglary—they don’t have to put a statute in there that says, ‘If you fail to enforce this law, chief of police, you could be held civilly responsible and can be fined X number of dollars per day that you fail to act.'” He shook his head. “They know how bad this law is, so they decided they needed to do something to give us extra incentive to enforce it.”
As of this writing, under the new guidelines of the law, Tuscaloosa police have arrested 141 people for driving without proper identification: 97 blacks, 34 Latinos, and 10 whites. Twenty-eight people were handed over to ICE, though officials could not confirm how many, if any, have been deported.
Quantifying the impact of HB 56 on Alabama’s economy has been a frustrating puzzle, especially with regard to its most visible and vulnerable component, agriculture. No entity has attempted to tabulate the size and cost of the labor exodus. The best effort comes from the University of Alabama Center for Business and Economic Research, which released a report estimating that the state could lose $40 million if even 10,000 undocumented workers stopped working—and that doesn’t account for the $130 million in local, income, property, and consumption taxes that undocumented immigrants are estimated to pay. As for the claim that HB 56 would be “the biggest jobs program for Alabamians that has ever been passed,” by January the governor’s ballyhooed Work Alabama program, designed to fill the positions that opened following HB 56, had posted only 10 jobs, and officials had no idea if any had been filled.
Other states offer cautionary tales. In Georgia, a survey of just 233 farmers found that there was a shortage of 11,000 workers following passage of its new immigration law. Tomato growers who usually sent fleets of trucks into the fields found themselves with trucks sitting idle, fruit rotting on the ground. Georgia farmers lost about $300 million worth of crops, which in turn drained $1 billion from the state’s economy, according to a study by the Center for American Progress.
“Anybody that’s promoting illegal-immigration enforcement as a job-creation bill has no clue of the real world,” says Charles Hall of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Grower’s Association. “Talk to any employer needing workers for physically demanding jobs that have production standards, and those employers can’t find dependable workers. And not only do we lack citizens who are physically capable of doing this work, we lack the skill. If you’re trying to be a productive grower and you’ve got 200 acres of cucumbers that have to be harvested today, or they ruin, you need good, qualified, skilled workers out there.”
Perhaps the most vivid example of the hurdles Alabama’s farmers face comes from Jerry Spencer, who runs Grow Alabama, a CSA (community-supported agriculture) project that distributes for more than 100 farms statewide—and that uses Facebook to get the word out. On its page, most entries have to do with recipes or logistics or awareness of its mission. Then, on October 2, Spencer posted the following:
The immigration law has hit. From the big picture i agree with it…The cost of food is going beyond the moon and stars. Very sad day for our farmers and the people of Alabama…Anyone that wants a job please message me. Pay is based on production. There WERE Mexicans that earned $200/day—more than 90% are now gone. This is not play time. I’m only interested in people that want to work and make an honest living. We will form crews and go to the farms that need help for the day…
One farm belonged to Ellen Jenkins, who grows tomatoes on 50 acres an hour north of Birmingham. Jenkins had about 10 acres left to harvest when HB 56 went into effect, and with the strawberry season at hand in Florida, most of her workers decided to collect their checks and leave early. Jenkins is a recent widow, and she’d been having trouble running her farm alone. As an experiment to see whether Alabamians would indeed fill the void immigrants had left—and, more importantly, to help Jenkins—Spencer put the call out.
Every day for about a month, Spencer trucked unemployed Alabamians—out-of-work plumbers, electricians, dishwashers, construction workers—to Jenkins’ farm. Each morning before leaving, Spencer would stand in front of the dozen or so who’d gathered at his office and give his “straight talk,” describing the day ahead. “I tried to make it as unpleasant a talk as I could,” he said, “so that people wouldn’t arrive with expectations.” Many would just walk out.
Over the course of the monthlong experiment, about 75 Alabamians worked on Jenkins’ farm; 15 of them showed up more than once; only 3 lasted the entire month.
“A Mexican can honestly make $200 to $300 a day at the height of tomato season, but that’s based on $3 per box,” Spencer said. “The workers we took up there couldn’t come close. I’m going to be generous and say $20 a day was average. I actually was proud to see how hard they did work, but they couldn’t live up to the efficiency, and therefore the speed and production, that Mexicans could.”
“I know what the governor wanted to have happen out of this,” he said. “But it’s going to take a human training—and I’m not talking about a worker-training program. People show up with expectations, hopes, assumptions that are unrealistic because they haven’t done it before.”
Spencer ended the program close to Halloween. “I couldn’t afford to keep it going. I was handling all the transportation, the telephone communications, the scheduling, working with the farmer, training. I had my own business to run.”
Jenkins won’t know exactly what she lost until her distributors settle up. Normally, she said, picking a tomato field involves five passes; this time, with an inexperienced crew—not to mention reporters and photographers and television and radio crews looking on—she managed only one. How had the Alabamian crew done? She paused. “They tried,” she said. “I’m not gonna put anybody down. Some done better than others; they just didn’t know what they were doin’. Some never even probably seen a tomato plant. But they tried.” Jenkins said she was considering greenhouse growing as an alternative to her 50 acres, to cut down on her need for labor. “It’s like any other job,” she said. “If you spend two or three days training ’em and they never show back up, that’s a waste of time. They need to be trained before they come out here.”
Spencer told me that many of the farmers he works with are reconsidering their futures—and not just how much seedling they should buy for a smaller planting if the labor doesn’t arrive next spring, but also whether farming is even worth the trouble. “Farming is just so year to year, you really have to know your expenses,” he said. “You have to have a high degree of certainty about your labor.”
Loss of a workforce is one thing, but it seemed that other, subtler losses were greater still. In September, I’d met with a Cullman couple named David and Sandra Bagwell, who ran a pair of chicken-catching crews, six men each, for the poultry giants. Sitting in their kitchen, Sandra played a home video to show me how the job was done. The video was shot from one end of a chicken house, with half the frame filled with the roiling, dusty white noise of 22,000 birds. A handful of workers are milling around and then begin stooping and swiping the birds up in handfuls, a half-dozen per hand, then tossing them into cages so swiftly, with such accuracy, that it seems as if the cage itself sucks them in.
Sandra stood near the TV and pointed out the workers—”my boys”—as each one snatched pom-poms of birds and dispatched them. With the relentless progression of a tide, the birds would disappear in two hours, including a short break for the men to wring out their clothes and change into something dry that they’d also sweat through by the end. As each figure moved across the screen, Sandra named him, told me of his quirks and talents. She was, she admitted, “a nervous wreck” about HB 56. She showed me the paperwork they’d provided her, but she wasn’t certain whether it was fake or not. She worried that her crew might disappear after Blackburn’s ruling, and that “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 everything if I can’t find white boys to do this job.”
Smith and his son Casey had even deeper bonds at risk. At their farm I met Shorty, a foreman who’d arrived from Durango, Mexico, in 1992 and had been working for Smith ever since. He looked tiny standing next to his boss, a seemingly incompatible pair, but between them I sensed a genuine friendship. We sat in a workshop: Keith leaning on a jerry-rigged recliner perched on a hubcap; Casey, 27, hunched on a bench; Shorty and I side by side on a discarded school bus seat. I asked Shorty what he knew of the workers who’d disappeared even before Blackburn’s ruling. “Some left for Washington,” he said, “some for Oklahoma. Supposedly they don’t have laws like Alabama’s, but I’m sure they’ll pass it everywhere. Why just Alabama?”
Did he have plans?
“If I can’t work, I’ll go back to Mexico. I’ve got my money saved up. I’m ready.”
“Just like that?”
“If there’s no more work, I’m not going to sit here for a week or two just to spend everything I’ve saved up.”
Both of Keith’s sons grew up with Shorty—a fact that Casey made clear when he called me at my hotel later that night. He’d been quiet as we talked there in the shop, slapping at flies. But when he called he seemed compelled to speak, apologizing for the late interruption, tripping over what he needed to tell me. The circumstances had become depressingly clear to him—Shorty could be gone within days. “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. There’s a tie there. Shorty’s like an uncle. I’ll flat out tell you, I got family members I think less of than I do him. For years I spent 8 to 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 had said that afternoon, after a long pause, each of us staring at nothing in particular. “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 years of razzing. “Me and Shorty was planning on having our retirement party together. You know, we was gonna retire at the same day. We was hoping we could just ride around in the truck and tell everybody what to do. Chew everybody’s ass out and go on about our business.”
“Well, it ain’t no time soon.” Keith said and threw Shorty a sly grin—all it took to crack them both up.
It didn’t take long for the unintended consequences to seep into the lives of all Alabamians: epic lines at the DMV, exhausting delays at the courthouse, procedural pileups at the utility company—the result of the new onus on state and local agencies to verify citizenship for all transactions. In Tuscaloosa, Detlev Hager, a German Mercedes-Benz executive, was pulled over in a rental car without a license plate, then, in keeping with HB 56, arrested when he couldn’t produce a license, passport, or any of the other documents he’d left back at his hotel. This episode made national headlines, much to the embarrassment of state officials who’d spent years and hundreds of millions in tax breaks courting Mercedes-Benz to build the SUV factory Hager was visiting. Before Hager’s arrest, Gov. Bentley had brushed off the chaos the law was causing as kinks that would work themselves out. But the incidents kept piling up: the rotting crops; the citizens held hostage by technicalities because clerks, wanting to avoid any potential lawsuits, became sticklers; Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano—a former Arizona governor, no less—pointedly telling Congress that ICE agents wouldn’t be helping Alabama enforce its new law.
And then there were the missteps of the bill’s sponsors. Beason caught national flak when transcripts of an FBI bingo corruption sting emerged in which he quipped to fellow Republicans about the black clientele of the Greenetrack casino. “That’s y’all’s Indians,” a colleague says. “They’re aborigines,” Beason says, “but they’re not Indians.” (It should be noted that Beason was the one wearing the wire.) In November, upon considering the “many realities” that made him politically radioactive, Republican Senate leaders removed Beason from his position as Senate Rules Committee chairman.
Hammon’s missteps came during his hard sell of HB 56, when he’d repeatedly stressed that Alabama had “the second-fastest-growing population of illegal immigrants in the United States.” When the Anniston Star again followed up, Hammon provided an article citing the Pew Hispanic Center, which listed Alabama as having the second-fastest-growing population of Hispanics.
Hammon’s conflated research was noted by federal judge Myron Thompson in a December ruling that caused the attorney general to hold a provision forbidding state and local agencies from engaging in “business transactions” with undocumented immigrants. In the case before Thompson, the provision interfered with mobile-home registrations, which civil rights groups argued would leave numerous Latino families homeless. Thompson cited controversies surrounding the law, including Hammon’s bad numbers, as proof that HB 56 is, at its core, “discriminatorily based.” Thompson’s ruling also took note of transcripts from legislative sessions, during which Democrats and Republicans continuously substituted “Hispanics” for “illegal immigrants” and bandied around stereotypes, like when Rep. John Rogers (D-Birmingham) claimed that, as evidence of “illegals” in his district, he’d seen “about 30 of them get out of a car one day…I thought it was a circus.” At the heart of Thompson’s ruling, however, was the observation that “HB 56’s treatment of children in mixed-status families, who are overwhelmingly Latino, is so markedly different from the State’s historical treatment of children that it suggests strongly that the difference in treatment was driven by animus against Latinos in general…”
That generalized animus was costing the business community even its legal immigrant workforce, says Jay Reed, president of the Alabama chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors—and cofounder of Alabama Employers for Immigration Reform, a consortium of 18 industrial associations, including Alabama Poultry and Egg. “While the legislation wasn’t meant to drive out those here legally working,” he told me, “it has—especially in carpentry, masonry, landscaping.” But “getting our members to talk about it publicly is tough,” Reed admitted. “They worry about ICE raids and immigration compliance officers coming onto a job site, just because they said they lost their legals. You can’t blame them.”
More provisions of HB 56 were enjoined by the Circuit Court on October 14—including the one that forced the Education Department to tabulate its undocumented students. But until that court hears oral arguments on the entirety of the law on March 1, everybody—workers, employers, teachers, students—is in limbo.
Amid all this chaos, Republicans have offered mea culpas. Some claimed that they hadn’t had time to fully consider the bill. “We’ve got just a couple of hours before adjourning the session,” Gerald Dial, a senior Republican, recalled, “and I’ve got a bill that I haven’t got time to read. But here’s my predicament: I’m a state senator. I vote against this bill, it looks like I’m promoting illegal immigrants. So you’ve got me boxed in.” Eventually party leaders admitted that the bill had been passed hastily, and even Gov. Bentley said that it needed to be “tweaked.”
Dial insisted. “It’s done some things we didn’t want to do. We probably didn’t have enough debate over it, because it was passed on the last day of a legislative session, at the last minute of the last hour. And hey, I made a mistake. But that’s the great thing about being in the Legislature: You can come in the next year and make corrections if the bill is wrong.” Dial hoped a bill that does just that would pass this spring.
I asked Dial whether, aside from the political fallout, he felt any personal regret in voting for HB 56. “I certainly do,” he told me. “That’s a big part of it. It opened up old wounds in this state that I and other legislators have worked for 40 years to overcome.”
In December, when I caught up with Shorty again, he and a two-man crew were busy building pallets on which the sweet potatoes would be piled and cured. The exodus had pushed the harvest back three weeks, but even with an untrained, haphazard crew they were finally able to clear nearly all of their 120 acres. Smith thinks it was a fluke. “We got lucky ’cause of the weather,” he told me. “You need to be done digging potatoes by Thanksgiving, and we dug on up into middle of December. If we hadn’t had good weather, them last 40, 50 acres, we’d a lost ’em.”
Lucky, too, in that being so outspoken against HB 56 had acted as an accidental recruiting tool. “As soon as all this stuff hit the news,” Casey said, “we’d get people showing up wanting to work, and we didn’t turn anybody away because we couldn’t afford to.” Out of the 50 or so workers who came through that fall, Casey said, “we probably ended up with about 7 that stayed with us till we got done.” Many of the rest quit before lunch.
Shorty was also disillusioned with his experience running a crew of American workers. “They’d work an hour or two, then split,” he told me. “Or they’d sit on a bucket and talk on the phone. How can you get any work done when you’ve got a cellphone in one hand and a cigarette in the other?”
Shorty still had his money saved, just in case, but in the meantime was going to “work until I’m not allowed to work. Mi patrón hasn’t told me to go, so I’m still here.” He spent more time at home, he said, and had cut back on driving—getting to and from the farm, and maybe sneaking to the bodega, but keeping his time on the road to a minimum. Otherwise, things were calm, relatively normal. I was surprised to hear his life hadn’t changed much. “Not really,” he said. “Those of us who’ve stuck it out, we’ve got work. And if we’ve got work, what else would we be looking to do?”
Things might very well change in April, when the law’s E-Verify provision goes into effect, though Keith Smith seemed unfazed by the deadline. “It ain’t gon’ be worth shit for us,” he said. “It’s the same situation: There’s not enough people that’ll get out and do these jobs that you could run through E-Verify and get the results that you need.” Was he just going to ignore the law? “I don’t know,” he sighed. “I ain’t been complying with the law for years ’cause I haven’t been able to. What other option do you have when you ain’t got nobody else?”
And then, he clarified one of the most glaring but least considered faults of the unemployed citizen/undocumented immigrant conundrum: Smith has three year-round positions; the rest are seasonal, 8 to 10 weeks at most. “They help us when we’re planting, leave, go do something else, and they come back when we get ready to harvest. The legislators talk about putting these people that are laid off to work. Well, a person would be stupid to quit unemployment and come work for me for four or five weeks. You can’t blame ’em.”
For now, the Smiths and Shorty and his two-man crew had their days full tending to chickens, repairing equipment, curing and shipping product, and trying to find 20 people just as good as the talent they’ve lost for the planting season in May. “I’ve talked with people I know in Florida and Mississippi,” Shorty said, “but no one wants to come here to work.”
If they do, chances are Smith will hire them, since he isn’t inclined to turn away good help where he can find it, documents be damned. “I can’t, unless they come and put me out of business.”
I shared with him what Shorty had said about sticking it out until his boss told him it was time to go. “I ain’t gonna kick him off,” Smith said. “They’ll have to come get him. I might go with him.”
The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute contributed additional support for this article, which ran in the March/April edition of the magazine under the headline “Help Not Wanted.”