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"It's Just Not Right": The Failures of Alabama's Self-Deportation Experiment

What happens when outside agitators work with state politicians to pass the nation's most draconian anti-immigrant law yet? The Cotton State learned the hard way.

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.

Activist Helen Rivas calls the law "a man-made disaster; it's totally avoidable and preventable."Activist Helen Rivas calls the law "a man-made disaster; it's totally avoidable and preventable."

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…

"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.

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."

"They tried," one farmer said of the few native Alabamians who showed up to take vacated field jobs. "They just didn't know what they were doin'. Some never even probably seen a tomato plant."

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."

Casey Smith in the John Deere-themed office on his dad's farmCasey Smith in the John Deere-themed office on his dad's farm

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."

Retire when?

"Well, it ain't no time soon." Keith said and threw Shorty a sly grin—all it took to crack them both up.

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