Politics & Policy

Illegal Workers in Alabama: The Exodus


When the city of Tuscaloosa, Ala., begins rebuilding more than 5,300 homes and businesses damaged or destroyed by an Apr. 27 tornado, it may find itself missing many of the people it needs to put the city together again. That’s what Ever Duarte, head of the city’s Hispanic soccer league, predicts after losing a third of his teams in a week. Tuscaloosa County’s 6,000-strong Hispanic population—including roofers, drywallers, framers, landscapers, and laborers—is disappearing in anticipation of a new law aimed at ridding the state of illegal immigrants, which takes effect in September. “They’re leaving now, right now,” says Duarte, 36, during a pause in a pickup soccer game. “I know people who are packing up tonight. They don’t want to wait to see what happens.” Two weeks ago, he says, his league had 12 teams. “Last week, it was eight.”

Governor Robert Bentley, a Republican, signed the 72-page measure on June 9, calling it “the strongest immigration bill in the country.” Alabama became the fifth state to enact new, stricter sanctions against undocumented workers, following Arizona, Utah, Indiana, and Georgia. Proposed laws failed this year in 22 states, including Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, and Louisiana.

Alabama goes further than most states in criminalizing assistance to illegal immigrants. Hiring, housing, and providing transportation to undocumented residents will be state crimes. Employers will be required to use the federal E-Verify system to confirm workers’ eligibility. The law also charges police and school officials with checking residency status.

About 55 miles southwest of Birmingham, Tuscaloosa is home to the University of Alabama and its storied Crimson Tide football team. The tornado roared through the city, killing 43 and leaving a path of rubble three-quarters of a mile wide and six miles long. The immigration law threatens to unleash its own havoc as the city tries to rebuild. “Hispanics, documented and undocumented, dominate anything to do with masonry, concrete, framing, roofing, and landscaping,” says Bob McNelly, a contractor with Nash-McCraw Properties. “There are very few subcontractors I work with that don’t have a Hispanic workforce.” Opponents of the new law say those who want to drive out illegal immigrants are willfully ignoring an undeniable truth: Like it or not, undocumented workers are essential to the economy, taking on hard, low-paying jobs Americans often won’t do, even in times of high unemployment. Rebuilding, McNelly says, will be slower and more expensive without them. “It’s not the pay rate. It’s the fact that they work harder than anyone. It’s the work ethic.”

The law’s backers say it is intended in part to create jobs for citizens of Alabama, where unemployment was 9.6 percent in May, a half-point higher than the national average. “This will put thousands of Alabamians back in the workforce,” state Senator Scott Beason, a Republican from Gardendale, said at the law’s signing on June 9.

So far, that hasn’t happened. Some contractors say that as immigrants move away, employers will have a hard time finding enough legal Alabama residents with the skills and desire to take their place. “There are plenty of people capable of working, if they’d just get off their butts and do it,” says Rich Cooper, a contractor with Bell Construction in Tuscaloosa.

In the past decade, Hispanics, many of them undocumented, flocked to Tuscaloosa for work. The congregation at Holy Spirit Catholic Church’s Spanish-language Mass doubled over eight years, almost filling the 1,000-person sanctuary, says Dorothy McDade, who runs an outreach program at the church. Church volunteer Lou Ginocchio recalls that when the tornado hit, Holy Spirit’s Hispanic congregants saw opportunity. “They were saying, ‘So much work, so much work, so much work.’ And then the law passed.”

McDade often refers Hispanic workers to contractors looking for help. Lately, she says, when those contractors come calling, she has no one to recommend. “They’re leaving,” she says. “Anybody with family in another state is going to go.”

Other states with tough anti-immigration statutes are seeing similar Hispanic flight. Georgia’s Agriculture Dept. reports the state is short 11,000 farmworkers this year, at the height of the summer fruit and vegetable picking season. Republican Governor Nathan Deal, who signed the law in May, is enlisting criminals on probation from Georgia prisons to pick peaches and blackberries. “We have always had some challenges trying to find enough workers at the right times to harvest crops, but the drop-off we’ve seen this year compared to last year is unprecedented,” says Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council in Commerce, Ga., which opposed the immigration law. Tolar says Georgia farmers watched in amazement when Alabama’s governor signed its law after the impact on labor was evident in their own state. “It was like, ‘Good Lord, you people can’t be helped. Have you all not been paying attention?’” Tolar says. “As we say in the South, bless their hearts.”

Construction worker Miguel Ramirez is one of the illegal immigrants on his way out of town. He has been working in the U.S. without documents for 12 years and says he moved to Tuscaloosa to find post-storm construction work. Before that, he had been in New Orleans, rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. When the law takes effect, “Tuscaloosa will feel it,” he says through a translator at a mall parking lot. “The talk in our community is that people are packing their things.” Ramirez says he’ll leave, too. “I would work for $100 a day in Louisiana rather than $150 a day here,” he says. “In Louisiana, the word there is that the governor is still grateful for the work we did.”

The bottom line: Tough new anti-immigration laws have had an unintended effect: illustrating how much many states depend on illegal labor.

Newkirk is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Atlanta.

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