A sponsor of Alabama's tough new immigration law told desperate tomato farmers Monday that he won't change the law, even though they told him that their crops are rotting in the field and they are at risk of losing their farms.
Republican state Sen. Scott Beason of Gardendale met with about 50 growers, workers, brokers and business people Monday at a tomato packing shed on Chandler Mountain in northeast Alabama. They complained that the new law, which went into effect Thursday, scared off many of their migrant workers at harvest time.
"The tomatoes are rotting on the vine, and there is very little we can do," said Chad Smith, who farms tomatoes with his uncle, father and brother.
"My position is to stay with the law as it is," Beason told the farmers.
Beason helped write and sponsor a law the Legislature enacted in June to crack down on illegal immigration. It copied portions of laws enacted in Arizona, Georgia and other states, including allowing police to detain people indefinitely if they don't have legal status. Beason and other proponents said the law would help free up jobs for Alabamians in a state suffering through 9.9 percent unemployment.
The farmers said the some of their workers may have been in the country illegally, but they were the only ones willing to do the work.
"This law will be in effect this entire growing season," Beason told the farmers. He said he would talk to his congressman about the need for a federal temporary worker program that would help the farmers next season.
"There won't be no next growing season," farmer Wayne Smith said.
"Does America know how much this is going to affect them? They'll find out when they go to the grocery store. Prices on produce will double," he said.
Lana Boatwright said she and her husband had used the same crews for more than a decade, but only eight of the 48 workers they needed showed up after the law took effect.
"My husband and I take them to the grocery store at night and shop for them because they are afraid they will be arrested," she said.
Chad Smith said his family would normally have 12 trucks working the fields on Monday, but only had the workers for three. He estimated his family could lose up to $150,000 this season because of a lack of help to pick the crop.
"We will be lucky to be in business next year," he said.
Tomato farmer Brian Cash said the migrant workers who would normally be on Chandler Mountain have gone to other states with less restrictive laws.
After talking with famers at the tomato shed, Beason visited the Smith family's farm. Leroy Smith, Chad Smith's father, challenged the senator to pick a bucket full of tomatoes and experience the labor-intensive work.
Beason declined but promised to see what could be done to help farmers while still trying to keep illegal immigrants out of Alabama.
Smith threw down the bucket he offered Beason and said, "There, I figured it would be like that."
The farmers said they get about $10 a box for their tomatoes. The produce box costs $1, the workers get $2, and the remainder goes to cover the farmers' other costs and provide their income.
The U.S. Justice Department, civil rights groups and others have challenged the law. U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn allowed major portions of the law to take effect Thursday. The opponents asked the judge Friday to put the law on hold while they appeal her ruling. Attorneys for the state filed court papers Monday asking the judge to leave the law in effect during the appeal.