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Anti-illegal immigration bill stokes backlash in Alabama fields

Farmers in states like Alabama that have passed strong anti-illegal immigration laws are fighting back, saying they are losing labor and that US workers are unwilling to take up farm work.

By Staff writer / October 22, 2011

Brent Martin prepares tomato fields to be plowed under in Steele, Ala., Thursday. Migrant workers fled the area because of the stiff new Alabama immigration law, leaving many farmers without enough help to harvest their crops.

Dave Martin/AP

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Farmers fearing a labor shortage are protesting recent immigration laws they say are too harsh, forcing undocumented workers to flee to prevent deportation. They say US workers are unwilling to endure the rigorous conditions of farm work and that state legislators need to come up with solutions to prevent local agribusiness from going under.

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More than 100 farmers and three state representatives in Alabama responded to the recent enactment of a slate of anti-illegal immigration laws by holding a public hearing this week in Oneonta, about 35 miles northeast of Birmingham. The farmers complained that they were already seeing laborers pack up and leave the state.

The new immigration laws will result in a $40 million hit to the state’s economy, with 10,000 illegal workers, each making about $5,000 a year, set to leave, according to a report released this week by the University of Alabama’s Center for Business and Economic Research.

Farmers are routinely the first to criticize immigration-reform efforts that target illegal workers, says Leo Chavez, a labor and immigration expert at the University of California, Irvine.

“If you get tough on undocumented immigrants, they lose their main labor force,” Mr. Chavez says.

There are already signs of an exodus in Alabama. The majority of school districts say that they’ve experienced a sharp drop in attendance of Hispanic students, a trend that prompted at least one superintendent to record a plea to parents that is airing continuously on a local Spanish-language television station.

Among its many measures, the new legislation in Alabama requires public-school officials to document which schoolchildren are not documented, plus it empowers law-enforcement officials to require documentation when people are pulled over for routine traffic stops.

Lawmakers at the farmers' hearing all said they stood by their support of the measures but said there were opportunities to tweak it to accommodate agribusiness concerns next session. In talking with the Birmingham News Thursday, state Rep. Jeremy Oden (R) said one solution was a temporary-worker program that would allow workers from outside the US to work here seasonally.

US Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas is proposing a similar measure at the federal level, which would allow as many as 500,000 seasonal workers into the country each year. Yet many agribusiness leaders say guest-worker programs like these are costly, because they often require farmers to foot the bill for housing and other costs.

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