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September 01, 2011   Email to Friend 

Migrants Flee Alabama's New Immigration Law
Jeff Helms


< Click to Enlarge >
Migrant workers in the H-2A Guest Worker Program tend the fields of a farm in Chilton County.
The sight of unpicked produce rotting in the field was still on farmers' minds when they gathered for a seminar on Alabama's new immigration law Aug. 6 in Huntsville.

The seminar, held in conjunction with the Alabama Farmers Federation 39th Annual Commodity Producers Conference, followed a day of tours that included a stop at Jackie Loyd's farm in nearby Stevenson, where migrant workers have fled in advance of the Sept. 1 effective date of the new law.

Unfortunately, speakers at the seminar gave farmers little hope of reversing the flight of migrant workers or repealing provisions of the law that hurt agriculture.

"Employers should not expect the courts to block the sections most relevant to you," said Ted Hosp, an attorney with Maynard, Cooper and Gale, referring to multiple lawsuits challenging the new law that were recently consolidated in federal district court. "The lawsuits do not challenge the provisions that would likely be most important to you. (Therefore), it is extremely important that as of April 1, 2012, you enroll in and use E-verify."

Although much of the new immigration law goes into effect Sept. 1, provisions requiring all Alabama employers to use the federal E-verify system do not kick in until April 1. Meanwhile, farmers across the state are reporting that workers are leaving because they fear harassment under the new law or have family members who are undocumented.

"We may not even get to the point of E-verifying," said Brian Cash, who grows tomatoes atop Chandler Mountain in St. Clair County. "From what we're hearing from our workforce, they're just going to move on before we get to that point. There's not going to be (workers) to even try to E-verify."

Many farmers like Cash have used migrant labor for years and diligently followed federal laws requiring employers to collect identification and fill out I-9 (Employment Eligibility Verification) forms. Now, these workers are leaving either because they aren't in the E-verification system or because they fear other provisions of the law. Cash already has lost one-fourth of his workforce, and tomatoes that should have been picked are lying on the ground.

"This 38-acre field is (a loss of) about $50,000. At the time these should've been picked, Romas were bringing about $12 a box, but we didn't have the help to pick them, so we had to leave them," Cash said. "We've got to get them when they're ready, and if you wait three days, then you're out of luck. They'll just do what they're doing -- sit here and rot."

Hosp said one of the challenges of the new law is that it doesn't provide an option for existing workers to obtain legal work visas. "Once an employee is here illegally, it is next to impossible to make that worker a legal worker," Hosp said, adding that there is a 10-year waiting period before an illegal worker who has been in the United States for a year or more can apply for legal status. Joining Hosp on stage at the seminar were Dan Bremer of AgWorks and Paul Schlegel of the American Farm Bureau Federation's public policy team.

Bremer helps secure agricultural labor for farmers through the federal H-2A program. He compared the program to a polluted pond that employers will only drink from when they are dying of thirst. Despite the complexity and cost of the program, however, he said it might provide an option for Alabama farmers who have lost their labor force.

Schlegel encouraged farmers to tell legislators how the new law is affecting their businesses in hopes state lawmakers will pressure Washington to develop an effective guest worker program.

"(Tell them) when the dust settles, if I can't get the workers I need and get the crops out of the field, you will have done me a great harm, and I'm going to remember it," Schlegel said.

In addition to making sure agriculture's needs are addressed in any federal immigration reform bill, Hosp said talking to legislators could help change Alabama's law during the 2012 legislative session.

"The legislative leadership has made it clear they want to work with the business community, employers and agricultural interests to make sure the law does not have unintended consequences," Hosp said.

Meanwhile, farmers like Loyd and Cash are watching their businesses wilt on the vine.

"We've got about $750,000 invested in this crop, and 95 percent of it is already on the ground," Cash said. "If our workforce leaves, all we can do is cut our losses. Not counting what we could've made, we would lose $400,000 to $500,000."

Schlegel said farmers like Cash are law-abiding citizens who want to do what's right. They have followed all the rules; now, the rules are changing.

"I have yet to meet one farmer who wants to employ illegal labor," Schlegel said. "All they want is certainty."

An emotional Cash echoed those remarks as he contemplated the future of his family's 130-acre farm.

"This is my passion, it's what I want to do. It's what my boy wants to do, but I just don't know if it's going to work out anymore," he said.



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