Alabama Scene

Unintended consequences II

Bob Martin is editor and publisher of The Montgomery Independent. E-mail him at: bob@montgomeryindependent.com.

Bob Martin is editor and publisher of The Montgomery Independent. E-mail him at: bob@montgomeryindependent.com.

The Birmingham News reported Sunday that crops are rotting in Alabama’s fields because farmers can’t find enough workers to harvest them. Agriculture and industry officials in the state say even legal immigrants are not showing up for jobs at construction sites and poultry plants because they fear a hostile state climate.

Farmer Keith Smith, who has 200 acres of ripening sweet potatoes in his Cullman fields, can find no one to pick them. Smith told The News he normally hires about 20 pickers – mostly Hispanic immigrants – for the October harvest. One day last week he could find only five workers.

Jay Reed of Associated Builders & Contractors told The News that the two main issues in the state are the labor shortage and the red tape. “There was a big misconception that there were long lines formed by Alabamians who wanted these labor-intensive jobs,” Reed said.

A study issued this past February by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center estimated that 95,000 unauthorized immigrants worked in Alabama in 2009 and 2010, making up about 4.2 percent of the labor force.

Johnny Adams of the Alabama Poultry and Egg Association said he and other representatives of the business community plan to talk to legislators about the unintended consequences of the law before they return to Montgomery for the 2012 legislative session. “We would certainly like to see some changes made,” he said.

Russell Davis, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Alabama, says labor shortages could be “serious issues” once demand for houses picks up because Hispanics, who are skilled workers and laborers, are leaving Alabama. Reed also said contractors have told him they have workers who are legal immigrants but who have left because of fear they might be targeted.

Not only are Hispanic workers skilled, as Mr. Davis points out, they are the fastest workers I have ever encountered. Several years back when I ordered new carpet for our house, a Hispanic crew showed up to install it. It was laid without a flaw and faster than anyone could imagine.

Then two years ago we had a new roof installed. Again, it was a Hispanic crew, and again it was completed in short order. One day I drove home to check on the progress of the job, and the foreman of the crew called me aside. He told me he wanted to show me something, pulling an officiallooking document from his truck. It was his U.S. citizenship papers.

The pride expressed on the face of that man, probably in his late 30s, altered my view about immigration. I don’t know whether the other workers were here legally. I do know that most were here to earn money to support their families in their country, probably Mexico. I do know they were doing the kind of work very few citizens of the United States would ever consider doing, and because of that, the construction industry in Alabama and the U.S. is about to encounter a critical labor shortage.

For years, the U.S. military operated under a policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Perhaps that should be resurrected as our new immigration policy… at least until Congress can adopt a policy that makes sense. Immigration policy must be a national policy. It cannot be a stateby state concoction.

But lawmakers, including the authors of the new Alabama immigration law, considered one of the toughest toward illegal immigrants in the country, said that while they may be open to tweaks, no one should expect a wholesale rewrite. “We will not weaken the law,” Rep. Micky Hammon of Decatur and the bill’s sponsor, told The News.

Farmer Smith’s retort was: “If you want to solve the immigration problem, quit eating.” Legislators should listen to Farmer Smith.

I reported on this significant immigration problem two weeks ago and am pleased that business groups like the Poultry and Egg Association and the builders and contractors are finally telling our “confused” legislators about the problems their not-so-well-thoughtout immigration law is causing thousands of Alabamians, including law enforcement and school officials.

For those who haven’t been following this issue, here are the major provisions of the legislation: Police must detain anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally while they verify citizenship status. Schools must check the citizenship status of students. Employers must enroll in the federal E-Verify program to check the status of employees. State and local government officials must determine the citizenship of anyone transacting business with the government, such as purchasing or renewing license tags.

So if you get your tags by mail, folks, the possibility that you may again have to stand in the lines at the courthouse remains unclear.