Alabama’s strict new immigration law may be backfiring. Intended to force illegal workers out of jobs, it is also driving away many construction workers, roofers and field hands here legally who do backbreaking jobs that Americans generally won’t.
The vacancies have created a void that will surely deal a blow to the state’s economy and could slow the rebuilding of Tuscaloosa and other tornado-damaged cities.
Employers believe they can carry on because of the dismal economy, but when things do turn around, they worry there won’t be anyone around to hire.
Many legal Hispanic workers are fleeing the state because their family and friends don’t have the proper papers and they fear they will be jailed.
Rick Pate, the owner of a commercial-landscaping company in Montgomery, lost two of his most experienced workers, who were in the country legally. He spent thousands of dollars training them to install irrigation systems at places like the Hyundai plant.
"They just feel like there is a negative atmosphere for them here. They don’t feel welcome. I don’t begrudge them. I’d feel nervous, too," Pate said.
One of the bill’s authors, Republican Sen. Scott Beason, said he expected short-term problems, but he has received "thank you" calls from two people who replaced illegal immigrants who fled their jobs. Beason predicts that trickle will become a rush.
On Chandler Mountain in North Alabama, tomato farmer Lana Boatwright said only eight of the 48 Hispanic workers she needed for harvest showed up after the law took effect. Those who did were frightened.
"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.
Farmer Chad Smith said his family farm stands to lose up to $150,000 because there are not enough workers to pick tomatoes spoiling in the fields.
"We will be lucky to be in business next year," he said.
The law targets employers by forbidding drivers from stopping along a road to hire temporary workers. It also bars businesses from taking tax deductions for wages paid to illegal workers and makes it a crime for an illegal immigrant to solicit work. Cristian Gonzalez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, is a stay-at-home mother of four who lives in a mobile home in suburban Birmingham with her husband. They sneaked across the border in 2009 and planned to save money and eventually return to Mexico.
"We’re afraid to go to Walmart. I’m afraid to walk the kids up there to get the bus. I am afraid to drive," Gonzalez said.
Her husband worked as a brick mason and cook, but was recently unemployed. Now they have decided they probably will return to Mexico.
"We’re just trying to be here one more year, but with this law … " she said, her voice trailing off as she shook her head.
In Tuscaloosa, there is still a lot of rebuilding to be done after Alabama’s killer tornadoes in April. Without the Hispanic workers to help out, it will take even longer for neighborhoods to be fixed up.
Blake Corder, the president of the Home Builders Association of Tuscaloosa, noted that the workers had left the area and he even lost a few renters in the past week.
Builders have complained they can’t find replacement workers, and delays in projects are expected. Once the economy picks up and construction returns to normal, the impact will increase, said Russell Davis, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Alabama.
"There is going to be a void. No question," Davis said.